Gold Medal Runner Caught In Gender Bender

Caster Semenya must undergo gender verification to determine if she is a woman.

ByABC News via logo
August 19, 2009, 9:09 PM

Aug. 20, 2009 -- In the 800-meter competition at the World Track and Field Championships in Germany on Wednesday, the big news wasn't who won the gold medal. It was whether the gold medal winner was a man or a woman.

These questions have been raised because of Caster Semenya's tremendous speed, muscular physique and deep voice.

Semenya, an 18-year-old South African athlete, burst onto the scene just weeks ago with a dominating performance in another competition. After that race, the International Association of Athletics Federation asked South African authorities to conduct a gender verification test on Semenya.

The IAAF confirmed the request Wednesday, just before Semenya handily won the 800-meter competition, beating her personal best by more than one second.

Such tests are far more complex than just dropping one's pants. Today's version requires reports from a gynecologist, an endocrinologist, an internal medicine expert, a psychologist and a gender expert.

"There's benefit of having these tests to the athlete because once the issue is raised, you really want to deal with it in a thorough, comprehensive fashion," said Dr. Myron Genel, a professor emeritus of pediatrics at Yale University, who specializes in endocrinology and sexual-development disorders.

IAAF spokesman Nick Davies told that the controversy surrounding Semenya is "a medical issue, not an issue of cheating." It could take weeks before we know the results of Semenya's gender test.

"When I'm racing, I'm thinking about my own race. I'm not thinking about anybody," Semenya told reporters after a recent race.

Officials fear that she may have a condition where she is "intersexed," meaning that she may suffer from a hormonal imbalance that could give her an unfair advantage.

There have been other gender controversies in the past.

Polish athlete Ewa Klobukowska was the first athlete to fail a gender test after winning the gold medal in two track events in 1964. She was diagnosed as having a genetic condition but was banned from competing in professional sports.

In 2006, Indian runner Santhi Soundarajan was stripped of a silver medal won at the 2006 Asian Games after failing a gender verification test contesting her eligibility to participate in the women's competition.

In the 1930s, a high jumper from Germany competing under the name Dora Ratjen turned out to be a man named Hermann.