Not woman enough?

An Indian athlete's medal is being revoked because she failed a "gender test."


Tracy Clark-Flory
December 19, 2006 2:34AM (UTC)

Here's an odd one: Indian athlete Shanti Sounderajan has failed a gender test and had her silver medal for the women's 800 meters competition at the recent Asian Games revoked, according to the Associated Press. Strangely, reports of the test results were news to Sounderajan. "I was not informed about the test results and I don't know much on that," she said. "I do not want to talk about it." An Indian athletics official told the AP that Sounderajan's test revealed "abnormal chromosomes." For lack of detailed information, there's been some speculation that Sounderajan was born a male and later underwent a sex change. Or there's always the possibility that she's actually intersex.

It's unclear what kind of gender test Sounderajan underwent exactly. For me at least, a "gender test" sounds like an evaluation of stereotypically feminine traits, conjuring up images of apron-clad female athletes whipping up cookies for a panel of judges, or a white-gloved inspector rating their housekeeping skills. (Particularly when most of today's headlines have blared something to the effect of "Female athlete fails gender test.") But it seems safe to assume that Sounderajan underwent something along the lines of the sex testing instituted by the International Amateur Athletics Federation at the time of the 1960 Rome Olympic Games. At the time, there was hysteria over the possibility of male athletes masquerading as females and competing with an unfair strength advantage.

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Once physical examinations were revealed to be inadequate for definitive sex determination, sex chromatin testing was introduced. But -- surprise! -- such testing didn't prove very useful. According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information, "there exist phenotypic females with male sex chromatin patterns (e.g. androgen insensitivity, XY gonadal dysgenesis). These individuals have no athletic advantage as a result of their congenital abnormality and reasonably should not be excluded from competition." In 1992, the IAAF reconsidered the issue and ended mandatory sex testing; as did the International Olympic Committee in 1999. Still, when someone raises a stink about a particular athlete's sex designation, "athletes can be asked to take a gender test," according to the AP. The athlete is then evaluated by a medical panel including a "gynecologist, endocrinologist, psychologist, and an internal medicine specialist."

It's fishy that the IAAF and IOC would find good reason to end sex testing and yet still allow athletes to be subjected to such tests when a competitor raises a fuss; it's a tad logically inconsistent to allow covert gender crossing so long as the athlete poses no threat to fellow competitors. That sex testing was largely put out of practice because of the difficulty in determining exactly where an athlete falls on the sex spectrum raises all sorts of sticky questions about the most sensible way to sort sports competitions. But this compromise solution seems no solution at all.


Tracy Clark-Flory

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