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Santhi Soundarajan And The Flawed Science Of Sex

South Africa’s Caster Semenya raises her arms after her first place finish in her women’s 800m semi-final during the London 2012 Olympic Games on 9th August 2012.

Santhi Soundarajan, the 26-year-old ace Indian middle-distance runner, was very excited, not to say a little nervous, too, that she had made it to the grand finale of the 800m at the 2006 Asiad in Doha. She may have won accolades back home—the previous year at a national meet in Bangalore, she had won gold in the 800m and 3000m steeplechase, and silver in the 1500m—but this was a much bigger, grander, and tougher arena. She also knew this was her golden chance to prove that she was one of the best in Asia.

Her lissome, ebony figure shimmered on the television screen—her dark hair slickly bundled up with prim precision, and her gangly, but muscled, arms waving to the cheering spectators as her name resounded in the atmosphere. As was her style and strategy, she ran the first lap unhurriedly, though close on the heels of the frontrunners, reserving her adrenalin for a final cheetah-like burst. But as the last 100m neared, she was still trailing behind. Perhaps she had mistimed her rhythm. And then came her characteristic explosive surge, albeit a tad desperate this time, as her angular yet graceful frame powered towards the finish line. She had probably fired her last cylinder a little too late for the gold, but it was just about good enough for her to edge out her second nearest rival in an electric photo-finish.

The final burst took the wind out of her sails as she collapsed immediately after breasting the tape. She lay prostrate for quite a while not knowing if she had won bronze or silver. She was too exhausted to think about anything, although she was glad that she was in the reckoning for a medal. When it was announced that she had won silver—even if by the skin of her teeth—her exhaustion sublimated into joy.

It was celebration time. Journalists and photographers mobbed her. Images of her looking up from her prone position were splashed across the media, as were pictures of her victory ceremony. The then Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu M Karunanidhi announced a cash prize of Rs15 lakh. A few public sector organisations chimed in with job offers.

Two days later, when the euphoria over her triumph had dimmed a little, she was summoned from the athletes’ hostel by the Indian sports officials. The games authorities wanted to perform some medical tests on her. They examined her body and took samples of her blood. She wasn’t told why.

Tests over, she flew back home the same evening. On landing at the Chennai airport, she was surprised that there was no one to welcome her. A few days went by without the plaudits Santhi had been expecting. Then, while watching television one afternoon, she saw her face on the news. The report was about the tests she had undergone in Doha. They were sex-verification tests, the news revealed. And she had failed. According to the communiqué released by the games authorities, she did not possess the sexual characteristics of a woman. She had therefore been disqualified, and would be stripped of her medal. Hearing this, Santhi fell into a state of utter disbelief.

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Women have had to certify their womanhood in the international sports arena ever since they made their debut in the 1900 Olympics. At that time, concerns about fraud and fairness had to do with the possibility that men might be masquerading as women. (There has only ever been one recorded instance of this.)

Routine sex testing was introduced to the sporting world in 1966 at the European Track and Field Championships in Budapest. There had been frequent rumours that some of the elite women athletes from the communist bloc were men in disguise. Suspicion, according to a paper in the Journal of Royal Society of Medicine, fell particularly heavily on the Press sisters, Tamara and Irina, who set a combined 26 world records between 1959 and 1965. When both suddenly exited the international arena in 1966, just as routine sex tests were being introduced, people interpreted it as proof that they were female impersonators.

The first formal sex-testing regimen required women to parade naked in front of a group of gynaecologists. Long hair, breasts, and a vagina were all one needed as testimony. As Katrina Karkazis, a researcher at the Center for Biomedical Ethics, Stanford University, points out, “outwardly observable feminine characteristics (gender) served as a proxy for biology (sex).”

However, the “nude parades”, as these sex tests were pejoratively labelled, were widely condemned as base and humiliating. As protests mounted, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) was forced to adopt a more scientific, and more dignified, chromosome-based test, called the Barr body test. This test, which was introduced at the 1968 Mexico Olympics and made compulsory for all ostensibly female athletes, was premised on the simple belief that a person’s sex is written into his or her chromosomes. An XX reading proved you were a woman while an XY indicated you were not.

The procedure consisted in scraping off a few skin cells from inside the cheek and examining the smear under a microscope. If a black spot, called the Barr body, appeared, it indicated the presence of two X chromosomes, and this was taken as proof of femaleness. Absence of the dark spot indicated the opposite.

This seemed relatively straightforward, but the test soon proved controversial. Predicated as it was on the notion that there are only two chromosomal combinations, the test inevitably failed to take into account the many greys between XX and XY. As a result, it was likely to produce false negatives and false positives. For instance, women with Turner syndrome are XO (where O indicates absence of a chromosome) rather than XX; hence, they lack the Barr body. In other words, although they pass the test of anatomy—they have ovaries, breasts, and a vulva—they fail the chromosome test.

Continue reading from the original article in The Caravan Magazine.

Images:South Africa’s Caster Semenya raises her arms after her first place finish in her women’s 800m semi-final during the London 2012 Olympic Games on 9th August 2012.