Sep. 11, 2009 at 4:48 PM ET
By Brian Alexander, contributing writer
After South African runner Caster Semenya came out of nowhere to zip past a track of world-class athletes in the women’s world 800-meter race in Berlin last month, spectators starting speculating that the muscle-bound 18-year-old was no lady. Her low voice and broad shoulders raised eyebrows and suspicions.
Now, newspaper reports from Australia say testing has determined that the running star has both male and female sexual organs – in other words, that she’s a hermaphrodite, and likely didn’t even realize it.
The International Association of Athletics Federations, which ordered the testing, refused to confirm or deny the reports and said it won’t issue a final decision until the next meeting in November.
In the meantime, there is worry about how the 18-year-old from a poor village in South Africa will handle the scrutiny, and widespread curiosity about what “hermaphrodite” means, exactly.
The popular notion of hermaphrodite comes from the Greek myth of Hermaphroditus, the offspring of Aphrodite and Hermes. Hermaphroditus, the Zac Efron of his day, was so pretty that a nymph named Salmacis fell madly (literally) in love. In her desperation, she jumped into a pool of water, grabbing Hermaphroditus on the way in and pleading with the gods to unite them forever. The gods did exactly that, which is why statues of Hermaphroditus depict a figure with a woman’s breasts and a man’s penis.
But such pure she-males are more myth, or the result of partial transsexual surgery, than reality.
That’s why, these days, the proper word is “intersex,” a recognition that there are a range of conditions between rigidly “male” and “female” and that gender is as much a product of society and self-perception as it is a matter of what gear you have or chromosomes you possess.
An intersexed condition can arise in a variety of ways, from a number of syndromes, but so called “true” hermaphrodites are often chimeric. In other words, instead of having cells with 46 chromosomes that include either an XX pair in women or an XY pair in men, they possess both 46XX and 46XY cells. Some may have one testicle and one ovary, or what are called ovo-testes, combo gonads comprised of both ovarian and testicular tissues. True hermaphrodism is thought to be rare, but according to the World Health Organization, no prevalence data is available.
In Semenya’s case, the Australian report says she has no ovaries and instead has internal testes, which produce large amounts of testosterone, explaining her muscular physique. It’s likely she and her family may have been unaware of the condition because the male organs are on the inside. In many cases of the intersexed condition, the external genitalia appear to be female.
In the past, it was common for doctors delivering babies with ambiguous genitalia to simply assign a gender and order up a surgery to make the child match that gender. But as intersex conditions have come out of the shadows, there is much more discussion about appropriate options. These can include hormone replacements, counseling, surgery, or doing nothing at all, a path favored by many intersex advocates.
Intersex athletes have been an issue before. Stella Walsh, the 100- meter champion in the 1932 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles, turned out to be intersexed, a discovery made after she was murdered in 1980 in a Cleveland parking lot during a robbery.
The 1966 world women’s downhill ski champion, Erika Schinegger of Austria, was discovered to have a version of a penis and testicles inside her abdomen. She later became a he, changing his name to Eric and becoming a father. Other famous “hermaphrodites” may include the Pardoner in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, and Queen Christina of Sweden in the 1600s.