Caster Semenya's tests not definitive - expert

2011-03-10 13:02
The case Caster Semenya's gender testing by the IAAF could have been handled better. (AP)

The case Caster Semenya's gender testing by the IAAF could have been handled better. (AP)

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Cape Town - Genetic gender testing cannot provide definitive answers for determining the whether athletes will have a competitive advantage, an expert has said.

"It's difficult to say if someone is male or female in terms of functional advantage. There are many considerations. The Caster Semenya case has implications for ethics in sport, but also how genetic medical literacy is needed not only for professionals, but also in the public arena," specialist in genetics at the University of Cape Town Dr Ambroise Wonkam told News24.

Wonkam said that individuals may present a wide variety of conditions that make an absolute determination difficult and medical science was not yet able to provide definitive answers about gender issues at the elite sport level.

He made his remarks at the Joint International Conference of African and Southern African Societies of Human Genetics at the Cape Town International Convention Centre on Wednesday where he criticised those involved in the Semenya case.

"The IAAF started an investigation which was not respectful of Semenya."


Semenya won a gold medal in the 800m at the 2009 World Championships, but was soon subject to questions about her eligibility to compete in the women's race. Speculation around the results of her gender has been rife, although the results have not been officially released.

According to Wonkam, the gender testing by the IAAF (International Association of Athletics Federations) was a travesty and could have been handled better.

"Political fractionalisation added fuel to this controversy. Everybody was informed, but Caster, and it's just not imaginable that a doctor will do a test without counselling and confidentiality. Officials need proper information as well as the media," he said.

Gender testing in sport began at the 1966 European Athletics Championships because officials suspected that the best athletes from Eastern bloc countries were actually men. The tests were rudimentary in that athletes had to strip down for an official to perform a physical examination.

Genetic testing was introduced two years later at the 1968 Olympic Winter Games in Grenoble, but Wonkam said such testing is more complicated that checking for chromosomes.

"We are not yet knowledgeable enough to give clear-cut answers. It's a legal, social, physical and functional issue. In some cases we don't even know how the cases [of gender differences] show up," he said.

While the actual medical results of Caster Semenya's gender testing has not been made public despite speculation, Wonkam said that all procedures would have to be revised.

"The IAAF will be forced to revise all their procedures. For Caster it was an unfair prejudice."

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