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Sex appeal revisited

A couple of weeks ago in Sex appeal we looked at the Caster Semenya case. It might have been thought that the fiasco regarding Caster Semenya's gender verification tests (the 18-year-old South African female athlete who won the 800 m at the recent world Championships) could not have descended into even greater farce. Such thought would have been wrong. Now, apparently before she has been notified of anything regarding her gender test results, reports have surfaced in the Australian media effectively purporting to give the result of her test. The general view is that the story is likely to be accurate or substantially accurate for reasons hereafter specified.

If indeed the media stories are correct, then the tests show that she has no womb or ovaries and has internal testes (which if normal and external would be testicles). It seems that the International Association of Athletics Federations have received the results but are not planning to issue or confirm the findings unless and until they have been verified by a panel of independent scientific experts, as well as discussed with the athlete herself. The IAAF not only has to deal with the fallout from the way the issue has been handled and the apparent continuing leaks of information however personal and confidential, but in addition has to contend with the South African response to all this in relation to which to say it has been vehement risks being a complete understatement. In addition to South African sources claiming that this is all down to racism, apparently there has been an indication from a South African sports minister, Makhenkesi Stofile, (in addition to pointing out that the athlete's human rights did not appear to be being respected, a conclusion that it is difficult to disagree with) that if adverse steps are taken against the athlete the authorities can expect "World War" (although it is difficult to see quite how that will translate to an international athletics context).

The fact that the IAAF are planning to have independent verification and also to discuss matters with the athlete makes it the more probable that what has been reported as being the result is in fact correct.

There is also in any event an issue as to precisely how the results will be and ought to be handled. This is not a case of someone altering their natural state. This is not a case of someone trying to cheat. The tests are extremely personal ones and cannot be equated to the type of test undertaken when someone is suspected of taking banned stimulants.

There is also a very blurred line as to at what point on the spectrum of the so-called intersex conditions it is appropriate for the IAAF to act. The organisation has a policy document (pdf) on gender verification which specifies those conditions which should be allowed which are conditions which it is said that accord no advantage over other females and these include androgen insensitivity syndrome (complete or almost complete previously referred to as testicular feminisation). For example eight women at the 1996 Olympics were apparently identified as genetically male but were allowed to compete because of the nature of their condition. (Again would appear that these would have been people who would be "outwardly female" would almost certainly have thought of themselves as female from birth, but who lacked a uterus etc and had testes internally). Deciding on the nature of the condition and whether it provides an advantage will not necessarily be straightforward. (Presumably they will avoid taking the simplistic view that since Caster Semenya is doing so well it must accord an advantage).

The condition means that she does not have periods (apparently more common than not amongst competing international female athletes due to the strain on the system, although in her case it means she will never have them) and may find intercourse difficult. It is staggering to think that the world and his wife knows all of these intimate aspects of the athlete's life when she has not attempted to do anything wrong and is so young.

One thing is clear. Since the leaks have continued without abatement there must be a definite source, probably within the IAAF. The IAAF could and should take stringent steps to identify the source and deal with him or her appropriately. They have now managed to engineer a situation where whatever they do will be regarded as unfair. If they allow the athlete to continue to compete everyone will assume it is because after the mishandling of the case they feel they cannot take such steps. If they do ban her against the background of mishandling that will be seen as adding injury to insult and is likely to give rise to a storm of protest from South Africa which will not readily dissipate.

The moral is clear. This should have been properly and discreetly and secretly handled from the outset. Once it was mishandled, it became even more important to take steps to protect the athlete's privacy and prevent further leaks. There has been an abysmal failure in this regard. Two weeks ago it was difficult to see how the position regarding this athlete could have been less appealing. It is even less appealing now and has reinforced the conclusions drawn in that earlier article.

Michael J. Booth QC