Tina K. Russell

July 30, 2008

Athletes and the elusive definition of sex

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , , — Tina Russell @ 11:01 am

Yes, they’re setting up a clinic in Beijing to test the sex of Olympic athletes who are, ah, “claiming” to be female.

This led me to learn about the case of Santhi Soundarajan, who competed in the 2006 Asian Games. Read:

The sad story of Santhi Soundarajan-The Times of India:
She should have been home with her poor brick-kiln working parents and four siblings in rural South India celebrating her moment of glory at the Asian Games.

Instead, Santhi Soundarajan has been reduced to leading a life of public humiliation amid uncaring and insensitive officials, shattered by the fact that her sporting career may be over.

The Olympic Council of Asia stripped Santhi of the silver medal she won in the 800m in Qatar, saying she had been “disqualified as per the recommendations of the medical committee on a Games rule violation.”

The Indian Olympic Association (IOA) said the 25-year-old had failed a sex test, implying she had deceived the sporting world by competing as a woman when she was actually a man.

Of course, she may have had a relatively rare condition with precedent in such international games:

Normally, women have two X chromosones (XX) and men have an X or Y chromosone (XY) in their cells. The presence of XX chromosones confirms the person’s female gender.

However, some people born with a Y chromosome develop all the physical characteristics of a woman except internal female sex organs, a result of a genetic defect that does not produce testosterone.

A person with this condition – called androgen insensitivity syndrome or AIS – might be XY but she is not a man because her body never responds to the testosterone she’s producing.

Since testosterone helps in building muscle and strength, an AIS case would not give an XY female athlete any kind of competitive advantage.

Seven of the eight women who tested positive for Y chromosones during the 1996 Atlanta Olympics had AIS. They were allowed to compete.

A year later, amidst the public humiliation, Soundarajan attempted suicide.

I can’t say I know what the correct solution is for the entirely unlikely problem of whether a country would enter a man disguised as a woman into an international competition (though I would imagine the likelihood of the information coming out, and the country’s subsequent humiliation, would be sufficient deterrent). Perhaps a more likely problem would be coaches, looking for a less obvious way to cheat, would use male hormones instead of steroids as the drug of choice to tell players to take and not to ask questions about. However, then you would want to have a look at recent medical history, as male hormones have fairly obvious effects over time.

I do think, though, that countries or teams flinging accusations of gender impropriety–the entire stated reason for these sex-verification clinics is to “protect” athletes from such accusations–represent the very highest in poor sportsmanship, unable to accept anything but the most vicious, scandalous, and titillating explanation for their loss. I can say that there must be a better way to do this, lest we lose another talented athlete like Santhi Soundarajan, a cissexual victim of anti-transsexual ignorance and prejudice.

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1 Comment »

  1. I just finished reading about this over at Donna Rose’s blog. And not completely unrelated to your previous post, I hope we don’t see the same sort of testing done outside public restrooms. How long does it take to get back the results anyway? When I have to go, I have to GO…

    Comment by Riftgirl — July 30, 2008 @ 7:33 pm


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