Friday, September 11, 2009

Run Like a Man: Gender and Physiology

According to recent reports (here is one) tests done on Caster Semenya, winner of the the 800-meter world championship last month in Berlin, reveal that she is not physiologically entirely female. She has internal testes and therefore produces more testosterone than her 100% female competitors (for a complete explanation see the Science of Sport post on the topic).

Early reports indicate she may be forced out of competition, even though she did not break any rules. This is the way issues like this one were handled back in the early days of the Olympics (most of the first bans were not for doping but for gender related questions), though recently the Olympic testers have allowed women whose tests showed signs of a y-chromosome to compete.

If the reports of her condition are true, perhaps Semenya will have the internal testes removed and continue to compete as a woman. But my feeling on this is that her advantage is not much more than an advantage gained, for example, by a cyclist or distance runner with much better physiology than his or her opponents. Or by a taller basketball player. In other words, if Armstrong, whose physical make up is superior to almost all other cyclists, is allowed to compete, then why not Semenya? Are sex issues that much more significant than the other physiological factors (not to mention training) that determine an athlete's success in a given sport?