Olympic Games and the tricky science of telling men from women

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Published: Tuesday, July 31 2012 12:00 a.m. MDT

In this photo taken Thursday, Sept. 1, 2011 South Africa's Caster Semenya, center, competes in a Women's 800m qualification heat at the World Athletics Championships in Daegu, South Korea. After claiming the world 800-meter title in a stunningly fast time at her first major international meet in 2009, she was subjected to invasive and embarrassing gender tests because of her muscular build and rapid improvement in times. The teenage girl from a tiny village in rural northern South Africa recoiled amid the testing and the resultant whirlwind of speculation over whether or not she was female.


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Our take: For the London Games, officials are going by a new set of rules that shifts the focus from DNA to testosterone, a hormone that aids muscle development, endurance and speed to distinguish men from women athletes.

Of all the obstacles athletes have had to overcome to compete in the Olympics, perhaps the most controversial has been the gender test.

Originally designed to prevent men from competing in women's events, it is based on the premise that competitors can be sorted into two categories via established scientific rules. But the biological boundaries of gender aren't always clear.

Consider the Spanish hurdler Maria Jose Martinez-Patio. A gender test revealed that she had a Y chromosome, which normally makes a person male. She also had complete androgen insensitivity syndrome, or CAIS, which prevented her body from responding properly to testosterone and caused her to develop as a woman.

Read more about Olympic Games and the tricky science of telling men from women on LA Times.

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