Opening Ceremony London 2012 Olympics: South African Runner Caster Semenya Faces Sex Testing

Doping and the Olympic Games have had an interesting relationship over the years. Ever since medical technology began producing performance enhancing drugs specifically for athletes, speculation, controversy, and uncertainty has followed many great athletes throughout their roads to glory.

Over the years however, studies show that levels of doping have decreased. But what happens when it’s a natural advantage?

South African runner Caster Semenya’s victory in the women’s 800m at the 2009 World Championships conjured up a lot of speculation recently after officials noticed her masculine-looking physique: was Semenya a male or a female? Could she compete in the London Olympics?

Although the International Olympic Committee “sex tested” as recently as the Atlanta Olympic Games in 1996, a mass screening is no longer practiced, but individual mandated tests can be authorized if suspicions arise; such is the case with Semenya.

Scientifically, hormone levels decide what sex we are as humans, and the IOC has recently stated when “women” test in the male range for testosterone, and their bodies respond to the hormone, they should not be eligible to compete as females. They claim this is a disadvantage to other athletes and as the IOC, they are simply trying to “level the playing field.”

This isn’t anything new. “Sex testing” for the Olympics was first introduced at the 1968 Olympic Winter Games in Grenoble (FRA). In the past, women would be examined naked or forced to undergo chromosomal testing in order to define a dominant gender, but (without going into too much detail) this can be a very gray area due to natural genetic disorders, making things very difficult.

XX vs. XY chromosomes can determine gender a majority of the, but because a fetus starts out undifferentiated, hormones aren’t always turned on the way they’re supposed to be. Therefore, XX people with two X chromosomes can develop hormonally as a male, and XY people with an X and a Y can develop hormonally as a female.

Even testing testosterone levels, like the IOC uses to verify gender, is not entirely accurate. In 2000, British endocrinologist Peter Sonkensen analyzed testosterone levels for around 650 athletes representing a random selection across sports. About 5% of women tested in the male range for testosterone, while more than 6% of the men tested in the female range. In other words, T levels are not diagnostic for sex and there is a natural occurrence on both sides of the spectrum.

Caster has been cleared for competition in London, despite the fact her body has both male and female characteristics—she’s externally female, and internally male, essentially. There’s also speculation, that she is taking medication to lower her testosterone levels, even though they are purely natural. The IOC is struggling to face the fact abnormalities come in different forms, just like Michael Phelps’ double-jointed ankles and Lance Armstrong’s oversized heart. To Semenya, “nothing can change it…the way you were born is the way you were born.”

Uniqueness is the key. A unique body and hormonal structure is inevitably the reason why some athletes of Olympic caliber are so gifted and not just “normal”, cut and dry, male or females. As long as someone isn’t fabricating an unfair advantage, let him or her run. It’s their right to stage their gift to the world, even if the IOC can’t decide which race to put them in.