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Sex testing lab for Beijing Olympics
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National Laboratory on Gender Verification to the Beijing Olympic Games  

National Laboratory on Gender Verification to the Beijing Olympic Games 

Olympic host Beijing has set up a gender verification lab to test female Olympic athletes suspected to be males.

In past Olympics, male athletes occasionally masqueraded as women and stolen medals through their greater strength, speed, endurance and explosive force. So how do the Beijing Olympics deal with this problem? And what measures have been taken to verify the gender of the athletes?

With these and other questions in mind, a Beijing Times reporter recently visited the Beijing Olympic Games Gender Verification Lab. He Fangfang, the Lab director, told the reporter that this was the first Gender Verification Lab in Olympic history.

Gender Verification Lab in PUMCH

The lab is in the basement of a Peking Union Medical College Hospital (PUMCH) building. It was set up to verify the sex of the athletes, said He Fangfang. The lab determines gender according to four factors: clinical observation, sexual hormones, chromosomes and genes.

Besides He, the lab team includes Professors Tian Qinjie and Huang Shangzhi and Dr. Wang Zheng. They are responsible for gender testing during the Beijing Olympics and the Paralympics. They believe that while their job helps to safeguard the fairness of the games, it can also protect the rights of those with sexual development disorders.

Only suspect athletes to be tested

Does every athlete need to be tested at the Beijing Olympic Games? He Fangfang said that only those who are considered suspect by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) are targeted, and the test must be authorized by the IOC. So testing is mainly for women athletes. At first instance there will be a report on a suspect athlete, then the lab will test the suspect with the authorization of the IOC.

The lab determines the sex of athletes not only through the presence of abnormal male hormone, but also through clinical observation and testing of chromosomes and genes. "We have to give special attention to the comprehensive diagnosis of those with abnormal sexual development," said He. People cannot always be categorized simply as male or female – there are some transsexual people. To those with ambiguous gender orientation, one single test is not enough and the testing results may easily give rise to debate.

Saliva for DNA test

When an athlete is tested, the testers make a preliminary judgment based on clinical observation, and then collect the athlete's saliva to study the DNA of cells from the palate within the saliva. Meanwhile, they will test whether sex hormones and chromosomes are normal through a blood sample. 7 days after the test, the Gender Verification Lab will publish the report of the suspect athlete.

"We only conduct the medical verification," he stressed. The IOC has the final say on the athletes' eligibility for the Games or whether the medals they have won will remain valid.

Androgen critical to physical strength

In normal cases humans have 46 chromosomes, with an X and a Y chromosome for men, and two X chromosomes for women. Anyone who has the Y chromosome is defined as a man. "At previous Olympics, gender was always identified by chromosome. Any "female" athlete identified as having been born with a Y chromosome would be ineligible for female competition," He Fangfang said.

According to Professor Tian Qinjie, male athletes tend to perform better than females in most sport events, except those such as rhythmic gymnastics and synchronized swimming. In field events there is a difference of 10-18 percent between male and female while it can reach 20 percent in track events. "In fact, it is androgen that is critical to the physical strength of athletes." Male bodies contain five times more androgen than females, which generates unfair performance discrepancies.

Take for example those athletes who suffer from diseases such as congenital adrenal hyperplasia and true hermaphroditism. Although they have two X chromosomes, their bodies have a much higher level of androgen. They therefore carry an inbuilt advantage in strength, speed, endurance and explosive force, so their eligibility should be questioned.

The hundred-year gender debate

The gender debate has been going on since the 2nd Olympic Games in 1900, when females were first officially allowed to attend the Olympics.

"Flying woman" proves to be a man

The Polish female athlete Stanislawa Walasiewicz once held the world record in the women's 100m, and won an Olympic gold medal in 1932. At the time some expressed doubt as to her gender, but little attention was paid since gender verification had not been included in Olympics.

In 1980, Walasiewicz, who had emigrated to America, was shot to death in an accident. The autopsy of her body disclosed the "flying woman" was actually a man.

Gender verification since the 19th Olympics

In 1964, Ewa Klobukowska from Poland won a bronze medal in the women's 100m and later broke the world record in women's 4 x 100m relay. However, in 1968 she was excluded from female competition due to chromosome test failure. She became the first athlete to fail a gender verification test.

Arguments about gender at the 1964 Tokyo Olympic Games began to call into question the basic fairness of the Olympics itself. As a result, the IOC decided to begin gender verification at the 19th Olympic Games in 1968. Since then, athletes' gender has been verified by testing their genes and sexual chromosomes at successive Olympic Games.

Three-year struggle to prove female gender

In 1985 Maria Patino, a female hurdler from Spain, was identified as carrying a Y chromosome when attending the Universiade in Japan. After that, the athlete required further scientific gender verification. After three years of struggle, she finally secured classification as "female".

Disputes concerning gender have continued for nearly 80 years in the international sports arena, and gender identification has been problematic at the Olympics too. In 1999, just before the Sydney Olympic Games, the chromosome policy was abolished as a single determining factor, the reason being that not all females are born with standard female chromosomes.

(China.org.cn by Wang Wei and Zhang Ming'ai, August 18, 2008)

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