Olympics Sex test
Olympics Sex Test: Why the Olympic sex test is outmoded, unnecessary and even harmful.
At the Olympic Games in Atlanta, about 3,500 women athletes had to undergo a diagnostic procedure that most medical authorities have characterised as misleading and unnecessary: a sex test aimed at verifying that they are not males masquerading as females. The aim, obviously, is to ensure that males, with their naturally androgen-enhanced muscular strength, don't compete against females in women-only contests. But most medical experts say that the test is far more likely to bar unfairly from competition women with genetic abnormalities that confer no such advantages.
The only well-documented case of a male impostor competing against women in the modern Olympics involved a German athlete named Hermann Ratjen, who bound up his genitals, assumed the name 'Dora' and competed in the high jump in the 1936 Olympics. The deception wasn't discovered until 1955, when Ratjen, who came fourth in the event, blamed the deception on Nazi officials.
Sex testing was introduced in competitive sports in the mid-1960s, amid rumour that some competitors in women's events were not truly female - especially two Soviet sisters who won gold medals at the 1960 and 1964 Olympics, and who abruptly retired when gender verification testing began.
The first tests, at the European Championships in 1966 and the Pan-American Games in 1967, required female competitors to undress before a panel of doctors. Other methods used during this period included manual examination or close-up scrutiny of the athlete's genital region.
When athletes complained that these tests were degrading, the IOC at the Mexico City Olympics in 1968 introduced genetic testing in the form of a sex chromatin (Barr body) analysis of cells from a buccal smear. The procedure was further modified at the Barcelona games, using the polymerase chain reaction to amplify the DNA extracted from a specimen to allow detection of a Y chromosome gene, SRY, that codes for male determination.
While this procedure was far less humiliating for competitors, geneticists and other experts argued that the test is pointless at best and has the potential for causing great psychological harm to women who, sometimes unknowingly, have certain disorders of sexual differentiation. Published data suggest that test results for about 1 in 500-600 athletes are abnormal and could result in their disqualification, says Dr James C. Puffer, of the University of California, Los Angeles, School of Medicine, who served as the chief medical officer for the 1968 US Olympic team.
According to Puffer, there are a number of disorders of sexual differentiation where an individual has a genetic make-up but is female for all intents and purposes. 'Each case is very complex,' he says, 'and needs to be handled with the utmost sensitivity because of the issues involved.'
A case in point is the condition called androgen insensitivity syndrome (AIS) or testicular feminisation, which experts estimate affects about 1 in 500-600 female athletes. Although such individuals are genetically male because they have both an X and a Y chromosome, their tissues cannot respond to androgens and they develop as women. The irony is that the tests would not identify women with medical conditions that, in theory, might give them a competitive advantage over 'normal' women, such as congenital adrenal hyperplasia and androgen-secreting tumours that could result in greater muscle mass.
In Puffer's opinion, continuing to require gender verification is ill-advised because it is no longer needed to achieve its original purpose of detecting male impostors. Why? Because of the revealing, body-sculpting apparel worn by modern athletes. 'There's no way with today's spandex uniforms that someone would mistake a male masquerading as a female.' Athletes also know they are subject to doping tests, which require them to urinate under the watchful eye of an official (all winners are tested, as well as a random selection of other competitors). 'So, from a practical standpoint, it would seem that gender tests are totally unnecessary,' Puffer says. That was the conclusion reached by the IAAF when it abolished sex tests in 1992.
(Journal of the American Medical Association, July 17, 1996, vol. 276, no. 3, pp. 177-178)
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