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South African Sprinter's Gender Questioned

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By GLAAD |
August 20, 2009

Caster SemenyaQuestions have been raised regarding the gender of an 18-year-old South African runner, Caster Semenya, after she burst onto the track and field scene. Approximately three weeks ago Semenya won the African junior championships 800-meter race with a world leading time of 1 minute, 56.72 seconds in Bambous, Mauritius.

Semenya won the 800-meter race on Wednesday at the World Championships in Berlin in dominating fashion, besting the second-place finisher by more than two seconds.

The International Association of Athletics Federations asked the South African athletics federation to conduct a gender test on Semenya after the teenager’s win in Mauritius. A gender test requires several weeks to compete. It requires a physical medical evaluation, and includes reports from a gynecologist, endocrinologist, psychologist, an internal medicine specialist and an expert on gender.

Gender tests used to be mandatory during the Olympic Games, but are now used on a case-by-case basis. Critics of gender testing point out that gender is not cut-and-dry and that many people’s chromosomes do not fall within a specific standard.

In an interview with the New York Times last year, Christine McQueen, a plastic surgeon that specializes in transgender medicine, spoke critically of gender testing.

“It’s very difficult to define what is a man and what is a woman at this point. Because of a range of genetic conditions, people who look like women may have a Y chromosome, while people who look like men may not, she said. Many times, the people do not learn of the defects until they reach adulthood. “It gets really complicated very quickly,” McGinn said.

In an interview with the Associated Press, the South African athletics federation president Leonard Cheune said Semenya is the victim of racism.

"It would not be like that if it were some young girl from Europe," Chuene told The Associated Press in a telephone interview. "If it was a white child, she would be sitting somewhere with a psychologist, but this is an African child."

GLAAD will continue to follow this story and advocate for fair and accurate coverage of athletes.

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