Judging Gender Trickier Than You Think

By Mat Probasco,  Newser Staff
Posted Aug 20, 2009 5:25 AM CDT
South Africa's Caster Semenya celebrates after winning the gold medal in the final of the Women's 800m during the World Athletics Championships in Berlin on Wednesday, Aug. 19, 2009.    (AP Photo/Anja Niedringhaus)
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(Newser) – After her big win yesterday in a world track meet, South Africa's Caster Semenya has to undergo a gender test to prove that she is, in fact, a woman. This is way more complicated than it sounds, writes Melonyce McAfee in a Slate Explainer column updated from a similar case a few years ago. It requires a small army of specialists—"gynecologists, endocrinologists, psychologists, and experts on transgender issues"—and a battery of tests that take weeks to decipher.

Olympic officials started testing female athletes in the 1960s with simple physicals, but "ambiguous" sex organs fooled them. More sophisticated tests for chromosomes and testosterone followed, but a myriad of genetic abnormalities further confused the issue. Hence, the panel of specialists. Along with chromosomal tests, "gynecologists perform physical exams; endocrinologists diagnose gene disorders and resulting hormonal conditions; and athletes may be given psychological help to deal with the situation."