The Strange Case of the Woman Athlete Who Wasn’t

Amid the excitement of the World Cup Finals, another potentially earthbreaking news of another kind should, but did not, make the news. Remember the South African woman athlete who won the ladies’ 800 metres final at the World Athletics Championships in Berlin last August?  19 year-old Caster Semenya, then 18, secured victory in the 800m final in an impressive time of one minute 55.45 seconds, 2.45 seconds ahead of defending champion Janeth Jepkosgei.

South African Caster Semenya winning the 800m women final at Berlin, August 2009.

Her joy was short-lived as the IAAF, which had earlier asked her to undergo gender tests,  then ordered more tests, saying questions had been raised about her muscular physique, running style and recent stunning improvement in times. Last week, the IAAF backtracked and now has given the all-clear for the athlete to compete in all IAAF competitions as a woman. The IAAF added, “Please note that the medical details of the case remain confidential.”

Reliable sources have indicated that the athlete may have had AIS (androgen insensitivity syndrome), a type of biologic intersex condition. Intersex results from a deviation in the normal embryological development of the reproductive tract, often determined by a known genetic mutation. More senior doctors will also recall the older name for AIS – testicular feminization syndrome.

To understand this better,

The usual pattern of human foetal development is in 3 parts:


1) sex chromosomes = XY, leading to
2) gonads = testes, leading to
3) external genitalia = male


1) sex chromosomes = XX, leading to
2) gonads = ovaries, leading to
3) external genitalia = female

So what happens in intersex?

Usually, such individuals will be either XY(male) or XX(female) with corresponding testes or ovaries respectively (1 and 2 above). The problem arises when there is a mismatch or distortion, with the external genitalia not manifesting the corresponding features (3 above). This means that you can, for example, have an XY individual with testes but with an external appearance that is essentially female (i.e. an XY female).

Queen Elizabeth 1

While the term AIS is rather new, this condition has been known for ages, with the suggestion that it could have afflicted Queen Elizabeth 1 (1533-1603) otherwise known as the “Virgin Queen”.

Whatever the case, sports bodies are now faced with a wider range of responsibilities, having now to contend not just with basic chromosomal studies in ‘doubtful’ cases and having to resort to more complicated testing procedures to determine their ‘true’ sex.

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3 responses

  1. Doc,

    Interesting…but a little complicated for me… Is she a “mutant” of some sort?
    Doctor2008 replies: No, thats not quite the right word. If, by a quirk of nature, such individuals exist, they are totally blameless and really deserve our sympathy. You can find more explanation from this excellent website:

  2. I have seen Caster in Berlin 2009. She was great . I have not problem with her feminity. Femine is all: fat until steel hard!
    I don´t have a problem with the gender from Usain Bolt or another people. I am a women fan! Muscle and sporty women like Miss Ewa Globukowska, Miss Sin Kim Dan, Miss Kelly White, Miss Venolyn Clark, Miss Irena Szewinska, Miss Marita Koch, Miss Jarmila Kratochvilova, Miss Florence Griffith Joyner, Miss Pamela Ryan, Miss Linda Haglund and so on.

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