Runner Semenya Cleared After Gender Test

World champion runner Caster Semenya has been cleared to return to competition after undergoing gender testing. Track and field's governing body ordered the tests after Semenya's dominant gold-medal 800-meter performance at her first major international event. Melissa Block talks to NPR's Tom Goldman.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

Now, the latest on the story of Caster Semenya. She's the 19-year-old runner from South Africa, the 800-meter world champion, who's been sitting out of international competition while undergoing gender tests.

Well, today, Semenya was cleared by track's governing body to begin competing again as a woman.

NPR's Tom Goldman is following the story.

Tom, Caster Semenya gets to race again. What do we know about her today that we didn't know months ago?

TOM GOLDMAN: Not much, Melissa. A quick recap of the case: She won the gold medal in the 800 meters at the World Championships in Berlin. That was last August. And other athletes complained that Semenya looked masculine, sounded masculine, and so track and field's world governing body, the IAAF, ordered the sex testing.

Now, today, after 10 months of negotiations between medical teams from the IAAF, a team representing Semenya, presided over by an international mediator, we get three lines. And here's what the IAAF said in its press release: The process initiated in 2009 in the case of Caster Semenya has now been completed. The IAAF accepts the conclusion of a panel of medical experts that she can compete with immediate effect. Please note that the medical details of the case remain confidential and the IAAF will make no further comment on the matter.

BLOCK: And does that mean end of story?

GOLDMAN: What they believe, yes. But it leaves us with tons of questions, obviously, because no medical or sports or governmental officials are commenting. Semenya isn't coming out and saying this is what tests they did. This is what's known.

And so we can only speculate and ask what did they find out about her gender. We're left to believe the Australian press reports from last year that said tests revealed Semenya has no womb or ovaries.

And if I'm a future female competitor, I have to trust the IAAF decision and move on, but will I wonder if I'm running against a woman.

Now, one person I spoke to, who's quite knowledgeable about the international track scene, said there's the belief Semenya has been getting hormone therapy like other athletes whose gender is ambiguous have gotten in the past. And if this is the case, the hormone therapy, in short hand, womanizing her more will make her less of a dominant athlete, the kind of athlete who's getting male times in races.

BLOCK: And, Tom, this case has been going on, as we've said, for 11 months. Why has it taken so long?

GOLDMAN: There are several reasons. One is it's very difficult medically to figure out. Well, it's not that easy. Some people are born with ambiguous sexual organs. Some female athletes have been found to have a condition called androgen insensitivity syndrome or AIS, where the woman might have a male chromosome, but she's not a man because her body doesn't respond to the testosterone she's producing.

BLOCK: Tom, this has also been a very sensitive, volatile issue, really, not just for Caster Semenya and her family, but also for the whole country of South Africa.

GOLDMAN: Oh, it is. Yeah. And particularly for the athlete. In 2005, in the medical journal The Lancet, a former female Spanish hurdler wrote about her experience where her gender was called into question. Her name is Maria Jose Martinez-Patino. She had sex testing at the age of 22, and she was given a certificate of femininity.

A couple of years later, she was tested again at the World University Games in Japan. There was a problem, and it was announced in front of her teammates, and she was crushed. And she wrote in The Lancet: I was expelled from our athletes' residence. I felt ashamed and embarrassed. I lost friends, my fiance, hope and energy. So you have a very difficult thing for the athlete.

BLOCK: Tom, do you see this case of Caster Semenya leading to any changes in gender policy or testing in the world of sports?

GOLDMAN: Well, certainly, there's a ton of talk about it right now. What we're seeing in January, the International Olympic Committee talked about setting up special medical centers to deal with cases of athletes with ambiguous sexual characteristics and medical centers around the world. This one official said it's for the experts to decide what to do with each individual case. There's no general treatment. There's no general diagnosis.

BLOCK: That's NPR's sports correspondent Tom Goldman telling us about the case of Caster Semenya cleared by track's governing body to begin competing again as a woman.

Tom, thanks very much.

GOLDMAN: You're welcome.

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