Wednesday, July 30, 2008

A sex test that's not so sexy.

While browsing the New York Times Science section today, I found an article about testing athletes, but not for drugs. According to the article, a "sex-determination" laboratory will evaluate the sex of "suspect" female athletes at the Beijing Olympics.

Testing to ensure women athletes are in fact women, first appeared in the 1960s due to rumors that certain communist countries were entering male athletes as females. Initially, the test consisted of parading the female athletes around naked in front of gynecologists. I presume the test was to verify the presence of breasts and a vagina. Gee, how pleasant. The naked female athlete parade was exchanged for chromosomal testing in 1968. According to the article, modern day sex-determination includes an endocrinologist, a gynecologist, a geneticist and a psychologist.

This seems outrageous to me. First of all, only "suspect" women are tested. What makes your gender suspect? I don't think women athletes should be tested for gender at all, but to test a subset seems beyond humiliating for those asked to submit. Unfortunately I could not find a set of rules or statements that would allow one to discern whether your claimed gender is suspect. I hope it's not something stupid like: "that woman kinda looks like a dude."

The only confirmed female Olympic athlete poser is Hermann Ratjen, who confessed 20 years after the fact that he was forced by the Germans to compete as Dora Ratjen. Ratjen, who is claimed to have had ambiguous genetalia, placed fourth in the women's high jump.

The most recent case where the gender of a female athlete was questioned was in 2006, when middle-distance runner Santhi Soundarajan of India, who is possibly intersexed, got her silver medal revoked at the Asian Games after failing a verification test. It seems that an official observing Soundarajan during a mandatory urine screen for doping questioned her sex. She subsequently refused to submit to a more thurough exam. Possibly as a result, Soundarajan was reported to have attempted suicide in 2007.

Not surprisingly, the practice has come under fire since it is not entirely accurate. This point is undescored by the fact that 8 women athletes failed the test at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, and were later cleared after a phsical examination. Other women that failed the test were later found to have genetic disorders, making the test not only humiliating, but discriminatory.

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