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'Gender-Benders': Sports and Sex Determination

'And after all, what is a lie? Tis but the truth in a masquerade'
- Lord Byron

The Olympic games is a sporting event that brings together the sporting// fraternity of the modern world. The razzle, dazzle and display of the Games are unmatched and every athlete worth his salt aspires to participate.

But the history of the Games is not without blemishes. Women athletes were barred from participating in the Olympics, much to their chagrin. With years the ban lifted and more women began to participate. It was then that trouble began to brew and, querries were raised challenging the feminity of some of the most successful female athletes especially from Eastern Europe and the USSR. It was believed that in order to win, male athletes, or athletes who were intersex, masqueraded as females. These developments were of importance even from a political angle, as they happened during the 'Cold' War between the USA and the USSR.

Sex determination testing was undertaken for the first time in 1966, during the European Track and Field events. The purpose of this move was to detect male imposters, who would have a natural advantage while competing with females. Initial attempts at gender verification involved the female athletes parading naked before a panel of gynecologists. Years later these crude physical examinations were replaced by laboratory tests, such as detection of the Barr body, which is the inactivated X chromosome present in the nucleated cells of all normal females but absent in normal males. Ironically these tests did nothing to prevent the males with genotypic variations from participating in the Games.

Genetic basis of gender assignment: By 1980, the Barr body test was considered redundant and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) replaced it with the Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) test to detect the SRY gene, linked to the Y chromosome, usually present in males. This was initiated during the 1992 Winter Olympics and thanks to this test, about 500-600 athletes were discovered to be far from 'normal'. Recent Sex Determination tests also involve a detailed evaluation by a panel of gynaecologists, endocrinologists and specialists in internal medicine.

Of late, however, gender testing has come under fire from members of the medical community, such as the geneticists and the endocrinologists, who accuse these tests to be gender- biased and unfair to women born with rare genetic abnormalities and who have sexual developmental deficiencies involving the gonads and the external genitalia. Several others opine that these tests are inaccurate, besides being insensitive and humiliating. The sex determination tests cannot lay claim to being absolutely fair as they failed to 'expose' the mighty and the famous. Princess Anne who was a member of the United Kingdom's equestrian team in the 1970's was shielded from public scrutiny when she was exempted from a gender determining tests.

Intersex and Olympic Games: Sex determination was carried out till the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games and has been discontinued by the IOC, since 1999.The International Association of Athlete Federation (IAAF), had stopped conducting these tests way back in 1991. New rules permit athletes born with ambiguous genitalia ( a condition medically called Intersex ), who have undergone a sex reassignment surgery and who have been legally recognized as either male or female, to participate in the Olympic Games. These athletes also need to undergo two years of hormonal therapy.

The Olympic Council of Asia, however, continues with the practice of gender- testing. Santhi Sounderajan, the Indian middle-distance runner who bagged a silver medal in the 800 m event at the 2006 Asian Games in Doha, was stripped of her medal when she failed the sex-determination test.

We are now living in an era when sports can be equated to exorbitance, with global banner s and the government vying with each other to back the 'best'. The chosen athletes are national 'symbols' and any unpleasant controversy amounts to national shame and a blow to the country's pride. It is also important to ensure that not a single imposter goes scot-free, as it would tantamount to squashing the dreams and years of hard work of a fellow aspirant.

Does elbowing out gender –testing ensure that all is free and fair in competitive sports? Should the 'dope test' alone be considered as the yardstick of sporting fairplay? The answer is 'NO'. A judicial blend of physical examination and genetic analysis based on the latest cyto-molecular techniques, complemented with biochemical and endocrinal evaluations will definitely be a 'curtain-raiser', and will go a long way in helping to detect the 'wolves' among the herd of 'sheep'.

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