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Gender "Cheats"
July 29, 2008 11:22 AM   Subscribe

In late 2006, Santhi Soundarajan took the Silver Medal in the Women's 800m at the Asian Games in Qatar. Less than a week later, she was stripped of her medal by the Olympic Council of Asia after a chromosomal test. According to the Times of India, "the Indian Olympic Association (IOA) said the 25-year-old had failed a sex test, implying she had deceived the sporting world by competing as a woman when she was actually a man." The disqualification ended her athletic career, and several months after returning to her rural village in Tamil Nadu, India, she attempted suicide.

Apparently as a result of Soundarajan's disqualification, Beijing Olympic authorities have set up a new lab at Peking Union Medical College Hospital "to test female Olympic athletes suspected to be males." Tests will include chromosomal (principally SRY detection), hormonal, and appearance-based examinations. (Also see: NY Times Blog, RussiaToday.)
posted by Kadin2048 (25 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite

 
From the article: "The official also said the test revealed more Y chromosomes than allowed."

Uh, huh? I'm a little fuzzy on my biology. Isn't this a one-or-zero thing?

Also, is there really a specified limit on Y chromosomes? Seems like kind of a rare thing to have a rule for.
posted by GuyZero at 11:31 AM on July 29, 2008


A few links that didn't make it into the writeup:

More information on Olympic sex testing, from New Scientist (c.1992).

Background information on Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome (AIS), one condition that can cause females to "fail" SRY detection tests; it has been suggested (including in the Times of India article above) that Soundarajan is an XY or XXY female with AIS.
posted by Kadin2048 at 11:33 AM on July 29, 2008


Tests will include chromosomal (principally SRY detection), hormonal, and appearance-based examinations

Really, can't they just do an ultrasound and look for a uterus? Maybe make sure the ovaries aren't a little hairy?
posted by CynicalKnight at 11:49 AM on July 29, 2008 [1 favorite]


I agree with Cynical. Athletes get physical work-ups all the time, surely a gyno exam is part of that? If not, can't her regular gyno sign some official document saying "Yes, she is female, I have seen and felt her uterus myself"? (If for whatever reason she had her uterus removed, I'm betting there's some other physical marker of womanhood she can testify about...)
posted by chowflap at 11:53 AM on July 29, 2008


what if one has genetic anomalies that allow a male genetic make-up, but is physiologically female? they can't compete? Ewa Kłobukowska was such a case I think...
posted by dawson at 12:04 PM on July 29, 2008


If she does have AIS and is an XY woman, she may not even have an advantage over her competitors. As the Times of India article points out, being insensitive to androgens means that muscle mass is more difficult to develop. Women with XX chromosomes produce some testosterone and are sensitive to it, so, all things being equal, a tall, well-trained, well-nourished XX woman could outperform a tall, well-trained, well-nourished XY woman in many athletic areas because she can build more muscle.

There is some evidence that XY women have bone structure that is more typically found in men -- taller, with narrower hips -- which could aid a runner, but then, there are a lot of lanky XX women out there, too. Is there any way in which simply possessing XY chromosomes, while being insensitive to any source of androgen, could deliver a net athletic advantage?
posted by maudlin at 12:06 PM on July 29, 2008


It seems like they ought to at least let her attend the games and perform in a non-gendered category or something, since regardless of the chromosomes she's clearly an Olympic-level athlete.
posted by XMLicious at 12:20 PM on July 29, 2008


I'm not sure if this is a tragic case of AIS, an equally tragic case of a closeted transsexual being dragged out into the open or a deplorable case of a fraudster akin to cartman doing the special olympics (albeit with better results) but it's a damn interesting FPP, kadin.
posted by krautland at 12:50 PM on July 29, 2008


She can run around the track by herself. That'll be fun.
posted by smackfu at 12:57 PM on July 29, 2008


I guess a lot of people here haven't heard of Michelle Dumaresq.
posted by Chuckles at 1:19 PM on July 29, 2008


I guess a little more context is required :P From the wiki page:
Michelle Dumaresq is a professional downhill mountain bike competitor who has completed male-to-female (MTF) sexual reassignment surgery (SRS).

...

The first event Dumaresq entered was the Bear Mountain race held in Mission, BC in May, 2001. She entered the novice female class and won. In fact, her finish time was 2.5 seconds faster than the winner of the female professional category. After racing two more races, her license was suspended by Cycling BC due to complaints from female competitors.

Cycling BC and the Canadian Cycling Association met privately with local organizers and at first suggested that Dumaresq quit racing. After discussion with the UCI the decision was made to permit Dumaresq to continue competing in the women's category. Dumaresq was not permitted to compete in the men's category since legally and medically she is female.
posted by Chuckles at 1:21 PM on July 29, 2008


It seems like they ought to at least let her attend the games and perform in a non-gendered category

I hope she likes horses. The equestrian events are - I think - the only ones in which men and women compete against each other.
posted by rtha at 1:33 PM on July 29, 2008


I can't believe I'm bringing up Oprah, but she did a show last week on intersex individuals. One of the guests has external female genitalia and a vagina but no uterus. She did have internal testes but they don't produce testosterone. So, it may not be just a case of checking for all the bits and pieces.
posted by shoesietart at 1:35 PM on July 29, 2008


Specific Oprah intersex link.
posted by shoesietart at 1:37 PM on July 29, 2008


she ain't heavy - she's my brother!
posted by ericbop at 1:46 PM on July 29, 2008


The equestrian events are - I think - the only ones in which men and women compete against each other.

Yes - but it seems as though it's only a matter of convention that this is the case. I didn't mean that a non-gendered category already exists, I mean that the integrity of the Olympic Games would not be irrevocably shattered if they simply came up with some way for her to exercise her world-class athletic prowess at an Olympic venue. It's not like changing the rules to permit doping or something.

Preventing someone from being an Olympic athlete in an Olympic sport simply because she can't be easily categorized for which list to place her on seems silly and cavilous, like there's a bureaucrat farting around having fun lassoing people in red tape.
posted by XMLicious at 1:48 PM on July 29, 2008 [2 favorites]


(If for whatever reason she had her uterus removed, I'm betting there's some other physical marker of womanhood she can testify about...)
posted by chowflap at 2:53 PM on July 29 [+] [!]


chowflap, I think you're confusing the uterus with the vagina. Removal of the uterus (mostly) eliminates the possibility of gestating a baby, but otherwise would leave the woman pretty indistinguishable from other women.

OTOH, MTF surgery includes creation of an ersatz vagina, and some potentially pretty-convincing labia, so even a visual/speculum examination wouldn't prove everything.

And, I definitely wouldn't accept a note from her doctor. How is this different from the note saying "Please let Barry Bonds play. He didn't take no steroids at all. Signed, Barry's Doctor"?
posted by IAmBroom at 1:49 PM on July 29, 2008


Believe me, I'm not confusing my uterus with anything (I'm not taking offense, I just know a lot about my lady parts.) I just threw out the idea that there might be some obvious physical marker (a uterus inside, no testes, etc. -- clitorises vary in size, so that can't be the marker, since they can be as large as a small penis). And as you mentioned, you can make a vulva with plastic surgery. I don't know, I just feel bad for this woman who was basically told, "hey, you're really a man, or at least, really mannish. Say goodbye to your career." I doubt she had any idea about her chromosomal weirdness.
posted by chowflap at 2:41 PM on July 29, 2008


And, I definitely wouldn't accept a note from her doctor. How is this different from the note saying "Please let Barry Bonds play. He didn't take no steroids at all. Signed, Barry's Doctor"?

Well, as long as you have a doctor who says you need a drug for legitimate medical reasons, you can pretty much take whatever you want anyway (see Therapeutic Use Exemption).
posted by Chuckles at 2:45 PM on July 29, 2008


Okay, probably not "whatever you want", but certainly lots of things that us laymen would think of as performance enhancing.
posted by Chuckles at 2:47 PM on July 29, 2008


This is actually a more complex issue than it appears - what is it about a person makes them male or female?

The presence of a particular set of genitalia? What about gender reassignment surgery? What about those with ambiguous genitalia? The presence of a Y chromosome? What about XXY and IAS? I'm not sure exactly how one would go about "defining" male or female.
posted by alby at 4:24 PM on July 29, 2008 [2 favorites]


Aren't there three choices?

a) genotype
b) phenotype
c) self-identity

The trouble with (c) is that people lie and/or try to game the system. Either (a) or (b) are fine by themselves, but they don't always agree, as in this example.
posted by GuyZero at 4:50 PM on July 29, 2008


GuyZero: I think both (a) and (b) are problematic: what about a person makes them genotypically or phenotypically male/female? Breasts? Testicles? A uterus? A penis? etc.
posted by alby at 4:54 PM on July 29, 2008


I'm a little fuzzy on my biology. Isn't this a one-or-zero thing?

Nope. If you check Wikipedia for X-chromosome and Y-chromosome you'll see that there are lots of possibilities besides XX and XY (not to mention male XX syndrome.) So far as I know, though, we can be safe in saying everyone has at least one X.

Even without considering the whole socially-created construct thing, defining male and female gets very complicated.
posted by Zed_Lopez at 5:32 PM on July 29, 2008


It seems to me that this argument belongs more in the bioethics category than the Olympic category. If the *only* thing that was used to disqualify this athlete was a chromosome test, then I think the disqualification is unfair.

*She* thought she was a woman, everyone thought she was a woman, there were no physical manifestation of maleness...this level of testing on athletes seems invasive and unnecessary.

Then again, I'm a firm believer that we should have All Drug Olympics.
posted by dejah420 at 12:59 PM on July 30, 2008 [1 favorite]


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