Emma Sherry

By Emma Sherry

In the lead-up to the 800m women’s final at the recent Rio Olympic Games, much of the lead up discussion focused on the South African athlete Caster Semenya. The history of sex verification in sport has been long and for many traumatic, with international sport organisations policing women with “masculine” features, subjecting them to a barrage of blood test, scans and physical examinations. However in sport, the traditional gender binary of male and female has been challenged and the right of intersex athletes to compete on the world stage has now been established by the Court of Arbitration of Sport.

What is intersex? “Intersex” is a general term used for a variety of conditions in which a person is born with a reproductive or sexual anatomy that doesn’t seem to fit the typical definitions of female or male. Differences may be found in anatomy or genetics, however intersex anatomy doesn’t always show up at birth. Sometimes a person isn’t found to have intersex anatomy until she or he reaches the age of puberty, or finds himself an infertile adult, or dies of old age and is autopsied. Some people live and die with intersex anatomy without anyone (including themselves) ever knowing (Source: www.isna.org)


Caster Semenya’s case, and those of other athletes such as India’s Dutee Chand has been strongly fought over a number of years, with the international governing body of athletics (IAAF) and the International Olympic Committee (IOC). The primary source of disagreement between the athletes, genetic and endocrine specialists, and the sport organisations is the inability for the science to draw a “line in the sand” between a male and female athlete.

In July 2015, the Court of Arbitration for Sport found that the IAAF policy regarding levels of testosterone in female athletes was not justified, noting: “While the evidence indicates that higher levels of naturally occurring testosterone may increase athletic performance, the Panel is not satisfied that the degree of that advantage is more significant than the advantage derived from the numerous other variables which the parties acknowledge also affect female athletic performance: for example, nutrition, access to specialist training facilities and coaching and other genetic and biological variations.”. The decision of the court ordered that the rules to be shelved until the IAAF could provide further evidence that could show there was a clear difference between male and female testosterone levels, and how big an advantage the extra testosterone gave hyperandrogenic women. This decision subsequently saw the IOC also change its gender policy, noting that it would not regulate women’s natural testosterone levels until the issue is resolved via further scientific research.

These athletes, many of who for the first time discover their gender differences via competition testing, are under substantial pressure and criticism during the Games, with Semenya reportedly under armed guard in the Olympic Village following fears for her safety. This criticism from fans and competitors has however rallied support from her country people, with South African’s rallying to defend their athletics star.

She did exceptionally well in the final, and won gold. But regardless of the result, she will forever remembered at these games for her bravery and strength in continuing to compete in a sport that she loves against all odds.