Thursday, August 20, 2009

CASTER SEMENYA Is she really a HE? SA Women's 800m runner shrugs off gender storm to take gold

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?”


  1. I heard this on the news. No one seems to be asking a rather basic question: WHAT IS A GENDER TEST? Like seriously, what does that entail? What exactly will "specialists" do to determine this athlete's gender? Poke around her genitals? Make her watch a "chick flick" to see if she will cry hysterically? Dr. Kemi, any help here? There are too many weird and disturbing dimensions of this issue...the world is crazy.

  2. Thanks Annette for pointing that out, i know Gender Test?? is Gender not socially constructed?? this goes back to some lecture that we had at GIMPA, they should conduct a SEX TEST instead of Gender, its just garbage really.

    I guess they are just bored and have nothing productive to talk about since no one failed the doping test so far they need to create another media frenzy

  3. Annie, I'm with you on that. And also, what does it matter? Is there a law now saying that to run in races you have to have a high pitched voice, big boobs, pretty big lips? What are they defining as a she? And yeah what is a gender test? I imagine she is really embarrassed and probably wondering what she has done wrong. And if in the end she was a woman, what will she do? Sue the people for accusing her of being a man?

    Where is the actual crime?

  4. What is Gender Verification in sports? This may help (From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia):

    Gender verification in sports

    Gender verification in sports (also sometimes loosely referred to as sex determination or a gender test) is the issue of verifying the eligibility of an athlete to compete in a sporting event that is limited to a single gender. The issue arose a number of times in the Olympic games where it was alleged that male athletes attempted to compete as women in order to win, or that a natural intersex competed as a woman. Sex testing began at the 1966 European Athletics Championships in response to suspicion that several of the best women athletes from the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe were actually men.[1] At the Olympics, testing was introduced at the 1968 Olympic Games in Grenoble. While it arose primarily from the Olympic Games, gender verification affects any sporting event. However, it most often becomes an issue in elite international competition.

    While it would seem a simple case of checking for XX vs. XY chromosomes to determine whether an athlete is a woman or a man, it is not that simple. Fetuses start out as female, and the XY chromosome turns on a variety of hormones that differentiate the baby as a male. Sometimes that doesn't happen, and people with an XX can develop hormonally as a male, and people with an XY can devolop hormonally as a female.[2]

    The test
    For a period of time these tests were mandatory for female athletes (not male ones). A New York Times article[clarification needed] suggests it was due to fears that male athletes would pose as female athletes and have an unfair advantage over their competitors.

    Nowadays, gender verification tests typically involve evaluation by gynecologists, endocrinologists, psychologists, and internal medicine specialists.

    United States Olympic Committee president Avery Brundage requested, during or shortly after the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin, that a system be established to examine female athletes. According to a sympathetic Time magazine article about hermaphrodites, Brundage felt the need to clarify "sex ambiguities" after observing the performance of Czechoslovak runner and jumper Zdenka Koubkova and English shotputter and javelin thrower Mary Edith Louise Weston. Both individuals later had sex change surgery and legally changed their names, to Zdenek Koubek and Mark Weston, respectively. [3].

    Perhaps the earliest known case is that of Stanisława Walasiewicz (aka Stella Walsh), a Polish athlete who won a gold medal in the women's 100 m at the 1932 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles, but who after her death in 1980 was discovered to have had partially developed male genitalia.
    Another Polish athlete Ewa Kłobukowska, who won the gold medal in women's 4x100 m relay and the bronze medal in women's 100 m sprint at the 1964 Summer Olympics in Tokyo, is the first athlete to fail a gender test in 1967. She was found to have a rare genetic condition which gave her no advantage over other athletes, but was nonetheless banned from competing in Olympic and professional sports.
    Eight athletes failed the tests at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics but were all cleared by subsequent physical examinations.
    Indian middle-distance runner Santhi Soundarajan who won the silver medal in 800 m at the 2006 Asian Games in Doha, Qatar failed the gender verification test and was stripped of her medal.

    The practice has come under fire from those who feel that the testing is humiliating, socially insensitive, and not entirely accurate or effective anyway. The testing is especially difficult and problematic in the case of people who could be considered intersexual. The genetic tests provide potentially inaccurate results and discriminate against women with disorders of sexual development. Genetic anomalies can allow a person to have a male genetic make-up but be physiologically female.

  5. Thanks for the info Rama. So basically a gender test is subjecting a human being to poking and prodding at the hands of a range of "specialists." The problem here is that we live in a world where people cannot move beyond the MAnichean. Evrything has to be starkly polarized into neat pairs like the animals that went into Noah's ark. Man/Woman, Black/White. No grey areas, nothing. This is disturbing and has obvious destructive concequences. My academic work focuses on metissage (racial mixing) and the ambiguity that surrounds mixed-race people so this is close to my heart!