SA athlete to undergo gender test
Posted on Thursday 20 August 2009 - 09:08
The playing-out of the Caster Semenya story last night was sad and almost unavoidable. The handling of the news of Semenya's issue was one that the IAAF had hoped and intended to manage as sensitively as possible.
It is fair to say that the gossip had been building all week. It had begun on athletics website chatrooms but the story started to gather momentum when it was suggested that this might be more than plain bitchiness. The situation became particularly tough for Nick Davies, the spokesman for the IAAF.
The IAAF's initial hope was that the South African federation leave Semenya out of their team. That would, of course, have been harsh, but it would have avoided the circus that we witnessed yesterday at the Olympic stadium. She is only 18, so a talent that good would most likely have plenty of opportunities to stake her claim to greatness once the gender verification process had been completed. If, of course, it cleared her.
Until yesterday morning, Davies had fielded a few calls from the media, asking if there was anything more to the rumours beyond mere bitchy gossip, and his approach had been to stonewall the enquiries.
Yesterday morning, though, the first story appeared on an Australian website declaring that Semenya had been asked to undergo gender verification. Naturally, the internet being what it is, the story spread like wild fire.
By 4.30pm, when Davies was due to give his daily press briefing, there was absolutely no hope of keeping a lid on the truth. Only around 20 journalists actually pitched up, but there was only one subject anyone had in mind.
But this was just a trifling display of media hunger. The moment that Davies confirmed in that press conference that Semenya had been asked to verify her gender, she became that biggest story of the day. There was almost nothing else on the agenda. That evening, Semenya's medal-winning press conference was packed. Only Usain Bolt has drawn an audience like that. And, of course, Semenya didn't show up. She had been advised, sensitively and correctly, to stay away.
The trouble is that there is no protecting her once the news had been confirmed. Davies asked the media to handle to story sensitively and delicately, but the Brisbane Times website was already running with the headline "Gender Bender on IAAF Agenda". Also Paddy Power, the bookies, was already giving prices on whether Semenya would be proven to be man, woman or hermaphrodite.
I would guess the 95 per cent of the media yesterday felt extremely awkward about this story. Old hacks who had thought they had seen it all shook the heads in astonishment; they had never seen anything like this. But once it had started, there was no stopping it. That is how news works now. The moment that the tap has been turned, no one can turn it off.
Michael Johnson, the former athlete and BBC commentator, was apoplectic that Semenya should find herself exposed this way. But there were only two ways to protect her: either the South Africans to have left her behind, or for the IAAF to lie.
The Semenya story has grabbed the public’s attention as well as the media’s and Times Online has been inundated with comments and opinions from readers that touch on wider issues of gender as well as the athlete’s personal situation.
Julian Foxall criticised the IAAF’s handling of the news: “Due to mismanagement of the pre-event details, Semenya's gender is now being questioned in front of millions of viewers and discussed in forums. Her gender should have been verified long before she was allowed to compete. Poor girl.”
Jenny Skidalski agreed: “It is truly shocking that the IAAF is able to act so irresponsibly. Creating a public spectacle whereby an athlete is 'shamed' and invalidated in such a way jeopardises the psychological well-being of Semenya as well as bringing the whole sport into disrepute. Furthermore, 'gender' is largely performative. People are not so easily divided in two convenient sex binaries.”
Jesee Itotian felt the case raises some large questions: “How should society define a woman? It seems that having female genitalia is no longer enough. Should we test every woman and man to a subjective test to see that their body fits into a set criteria? Should Bolt be tested to see that he is not producing too many hormones? Should we have special games for men and women who don't fit into the category that we define? When a child is born, should doctors test them first and then classify them into boy, girl and unknown gender or half boy or half girl?”