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Demystified: What are gender tests?

Jul 26, 2012 08:51 AM IST India India

Mumbai: Asian Games silver medallist Santhi Soundarajan's tragic story from being the nations top athlete to a daily wage labourer due to a gender test result made headlines. But what are these 'gender tests'? How exact are these tests that have also been conducted on another athlete Pinki Parmanik?

Pinki burst into the world scene with a stellar performance at the South Asian Games in 2006. Now she's been forced to prove her sex. Pinki Pramanik's contemporary Santhi was stripped off her medals after a failed gender test. The incidents have put the spotlight on 'gender' - a complex physical and social puzzle.

There is no one test that can determine with scientific certainty whether one is a male or a female. In fact a battery of tests are conducted by a group of doctors, which include an endocrinologist, a gynaecologist, an internal medicine expert, an expert on gender and a psychologist, to determine the gender.

Dr Firuza Parikh, Director, IVF and Genetics at Jaslok Hospital, describing the path followed in a gender test, said, "A physical evaluation followed by blood test looks to confirm certain physiological differences between the sexes. Lab tests also check the appropriate level of sex hormones."

But sex is not always as simple as X and Y chromosomes. In fact, 1 in 1,000 babies are born with an 'intersex' condition, i.e., with chromosomal abnormalities leading to to ambiguous reproductive organs.

Though precise details of Santhi's condition were never made public, reportedly, she had the Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome. Describing what Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome is, Dr Firuza said, "Externally a woman may have female sex organs. But internally she may have testes. In such people, because of the genetic anomaly, they may have a Y chromosome and come across as pretty women."

In fact only one known case of gender cheating exists in the history of modern Olympics and it was not uncovered by a sex determination test. In 1936, German athlete Dora Ratjen finished fourth in women's high jump and disclosed 20 years later, that he was a man forced by the Nazis to compete as a woman.