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Posted by on Sep 9, 2009 in Society | 13 comments

Science And Sports: Conflicts In Genetics

You probably didn’t hear much about Caster Semenya until her “makeover” this week, unless you are a hard-core sports fan.

Semenya is an 18-year-old from South Africa. Last month, she won an 800m race in the Berlin World Championships, after which the International Association of Athletics Federations demanded that she “prove” she’s female.

A group of doctors, including an endocrinologist, a gynaecologist, an internal medicine expert, an expert on gender and a psychologist, have started the testing procedure but it is uncertain when the results will be known.

[IAAF secretary general Pierre] Weiss said testing was being done in Berlin and South Africa but admitted it was a complex issue.

The issue is one of genetics. Men and women have separate classes of competition because there are performance characteristics that correlate with sex (as determined by X-Y chromosomes).

In 2006, Indian Santhi Soundarajan vaulted to the top of the same 800m game and came crashing down after genetic testing revealed that she was “intersexed.”

Soundarajan was later diagnosed with AIS, or androgen insensitivity syndrome, a condition in which a genetic male is resistant to androgens, the male sex hormones that include testosterone, leading the body to appear externally female.

I’m not an endrocinologist, so I don’t understand how Soundarajan could have a “male-influenced” performance advantage if she is resistant to testosterone. The TIME article doesn’t explain. (Surprised?)

The AIS Support Group claims that:

People with AIS have a functioning Y sex chromosome (and therefore no female internal organs), but an abnormality on the X sex chromosome that renders the body completely or partially incapable of recognising the androgens produced.

If that’s the case (ie, no uterus), I’m not sure why you’d need lots of tests. Clearly, the science is complicated. More complicated than I am going to explore here.

Genetics are, indeed, a major (but not the only) component of athletic success. For example, Lance Armstrong has an oversized heart, which means he can pump more blood per minute than someone with an average sized heart. It also seems as though his genetics allowed his body to “convert fast-twitch muscle fibers to slow-twitch muscle fibers” (note, this isn’t something you tell your body to do or something that is a common result of training) which helped boost his muscle-efficiency rate. A “huge” boost, according to the scientists who have studied Armstrong for more than a decade.

His body’s “genetic superiority” doesn’t disqualify him. We accept Armstrong’s genetic superiority because we don’t know why it happens. I guess. (Wouldn’t it be ironic if at some future date this muscle-efficiency bit is linked to something “female”?)

Sex. Well, that’s a different story, isn’t it?

In the current saga, we have an additional wrinkle. A sad reflection on culture. Not only has Semenya has lost her coach (who resigned because of his part in secret sex “testing”); she is also being “made-over” by her handlers to look the female part. At least Western-sensibilities-defined female part.

Coilhouse writes:

Today, Semenya fell victim to the same phenomenon as Susan Boyle some months before her: the softening magazine makeover.

Yes, Semenya has been madeover by South Africa’s You magazine. Make-up, hair, clothes all scream: “She’s female, dammit!”

She’s 18, she’s never bought her own clothes, she usually wears pants (sensible!) … and now she’s being turned into a celebrity girly model. What does that say to other non-conformist young women? What does that say about us, society?

And what if she had dressed this part before today? Would the Germans have challenged her “femaleness” if she had looked the part of a Western female?

Gender and sex are different; one is a social construct and the other is genetic (although, as we are learning, not necessarily digital). How the two play out as science discovers more about what makes us tick … is for the crystal ball and science fiction writers.

But today we have yet another sacrifice on the altar of “fairness.” Why are these sacrifices too often exceptional young women?

This post first appeared at Newsvine