Some Female Olympians May Undergo Sex Tests

At the Beijing Olympics, some female athletes may undergo sex testing. Doriane Lambelet Coleman, a professor of law at Duke University and a former athlete, says sex testing began following suspicion that some female athletes either took anabolic androgenic steroids or were, in fact, men.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

Organizers of the Beijing games have set up a sex determination lab to test what they're calling suspect female athletes. Those athletes will be subject to external examination. They'll also undergo blood tests which will check their sex hormones and chromosomes. Sex testing is not new at the Olympics, though the methods have changed over the years.

To talk about the history of these tests, we're joined by Duke University law professor Doriane Coleman. She's a former track and field athlete and anti-doping specialist. Thanks for being with us.

Professor DORIANE COLEMAN (Law, Duke University): Nice to be here, Melissa. Thank you.

BLOCK: And Professor Coleman, let's talk about when sex testing started at the Olympics and why it came about.

Prof. COLEMAN: Sex testing started in 1968 in Mexico City. It followed a period of suspicions about, particularly female athletes in track and field from the former Soviet bloc countries who appeared in many instances to either have taken anabolic-androgenic steroids or, in fact, to have been men.

BLOCK: And the tests back then were pretty basic.

Prof. COLEMAN: They were pretty basic. At least before Mexico City games to the extent that there was sex testing, it was a version of a strip search. In Mexico City, there was a switch to a chromosome test that was used through the Atlanta games.

BLOCK: And it's in those chromosome tests that it sounds like they started turning up athletes who were genetically male, looked female, and didn't know that they had abnormal chromosomes.

Prof. COLEMAN: Exactly. This phenomenon is often known as androgen insensitivity syndrome or AIS. It's a situation where a woman is by all external appearances a woman. She may, in fact, have thought of herself as a woman. Chromosomal testing reveals that there is an XY chromosomal pattern, which is most typical for men. But because of the androgen insensitivity syndrome, her body doesn't produce testosterone like men. And therefore, the woman would be classified despite the chromosomal abnormality as a woman.

BLOCK: And she wouldn't have had any particular advantage in an athletic game?

Prof. COLEMAN: No advantage, in fact, maybe a disadvantage because typical women do have some level of testosterone production in the body and use in the body.

BLOCK: There's been, obviously, a lot of controversy about sex testing at the games over the years, and it led to a blanket ban on this in 1999. You couldn't anymore test all women athletes at the Olympics, but you could test some who are suspect. What would they be looking for, suspect athletes?

Prof. COLEMAN: Typically, it would be external or aesthetic male characteristics. And so, things like particularly developed musculature, bone structure, voice pattern. Just external appearance of a man.

BLOCK: Can you tell, based on what is said to be going on at the Beijing Games, how the testing this year might be different from testing we've seen in the past?

Prof. COLEMAN: The Olympic officials haven't publicly released the protocol they intend to use as far as I know. But they have released some details about the protocol they intend to use. It would be, again, suspicion-based trigger, presumably, to the extent that the officials believe that there was the requisite degree and kind of suspicion the athlete would be put through what looks like a four-part battery of tests.

One of the parts of this battery of tests would be the traditional chromosomal testing, but this component would only be one part. And so, to the extent that there were flaws in the chromosomal test used through the Atlanta games, those flaws would be corrected or at least the effort will be made to correct the flaws by conducting a more holistic analysis of the individual physiologically and psychologically.

BLOCK: Professor Coleman, are there are people who say this is way too invasive? You shouldn't be doing this kind of testing at all.

Prof. COLEMAN: I assume that there are. There always are people who say this. They say this about urine testing and blood testing for doping control. Nevertheless, the Olympic Committee has never been denied the right to conduct the tests that it needs or wants to conduct in its own games. Despite the public nature of the games, they're essentially a private enterprise.

BLOCK: Professor Coleman, thanks so much.

Prof. COLEMAN: You're welcome and thank you, Melissa.

BLOCK: Professor Doriane Coleman teaches law at Duke University. She helped develop drug-testing programs for USA track and field.

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