New York: By the time they arrive in Beijing, most athletes have resigned themselves to the possibility of undergoing a battery of tests for banned substances, such as anabolic steroids and certain cough medicines. But some female athletes may find they are asked to submit to an entirely different examination—one that will test whether they are, in fact, women.
Organizers of the Beijing Olympics have set up a sex-determination laboratory to evaluate “suspect” female athletes, the official Chinese news agency Xinhua reported on Sunday. The lab is similar to ones set up at previous Olympics in Sydney, Australia and Athens, Greece, and will draw on the resources of the Peking Union Medical College Hospital to evaluate an athlete's external appearance, hormones and genes.
Lost glory: A file picture of Santhi Soundarajan at the 15th Asian Games in Doha. (Photograph by Marwan Naamani/AFP)
Some medical ethicists have said the practice is too intrusive. “Real people are going to be hurt by this,” said Alice Dreger, an associate professor in medical humanities and bioethics at Northwestern University. “Real Olympic athletes who have spent their whole life waiting for this moment.”
Although only athletes whose gender has been questioned will be tested in Beijing, the lab is a relic of an earlier Olympic era, when every female athlete was required to submit to a sex-verification test before competing in the Games. The tests emerged in the 1960s, when the Soviet Union and other Communist countries were suspected of entering male athletes in women’s events to gain an edge.
At first, women were asked to parade nude before a panel of doctors to verify their sex. At the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, officials switched to a chromosomal test.
The tests never unmasked a man posing as a woman, but they did turn up several athletes who were born with genetic defects that made them appear—according to lab results, at least—to be men. In 1967, Polish sprinter Ewa Klobukowska was barred from the sport because she failed the chromosomal test, even though she had passed the nude test a year earlier. In the 1980s, Spanish hurdler Maria Jose Martinez Patino was disqualified because the test revealed, to her surprise, that she was born with a Y chromosome. Her eligibility was reinstated in 1988 after a public dispute.
The practice came under increasing criticism in the 1990s by doctors, scientists and athletes who argued that the tests were not just invasive, but were also bad science. During the 1996 Atlanta Games, eight athletes failed the test, but all were later cleared of suspicion because it was determined that they had a birth defect that did not give them an unfair advantage.
“It was an unethical, unscientific and discriminatory practice,” said Arne Ljungqvist, the chairman of the International Olympic Committee's medical commission and one of the most outspoken critics of the testing.
In 1999, Ljungqvist helped abolish the blanket testing of women, but international competitions have continued to rely on sex-verification tests in isolated instances.
“We must be ready to take on such cases should they arise,” Ljungqvist said. “Sometimes, fingers are pointed at particular female athletes, and in order to protect them, we have to be able to investigate it and clarify.”
Two years ago, middle-distance runner Santhi Soundarajan of India was stripped of her silver medal at the Asian Games after failing a verification test. Ljungqvist said an official who observed Soundarajan during the mandatory urine test for doping questioned her sex, and she later refused to submit to a more thorough exam.
Although the verification test has changed to adapt to new scientific understandings about gender—athletes are now evaluated by an endocrinologist, gynaecologist, a geneticist and a psychologist—critics say the test is based on the false idea that someone's sex is a cut-and-dried issue.
©2008/THE NEW YORK TIMES