Caster Semenya, an 18-year-old South African, dominated the women’s 800 meters in Berlin on Wednesday at the 2009 World Championships. While she ought to be track and field’s newest star, instead, in less than the time it took to win the race, 1:55.45 minutes, the accomplishment produced a hail of speculation, one ominously oozing with gender, racial and political insinuations. Semenya crossed the finish line in what should have been one of the triumphs of a young life and the pride of a country whose sports stars wear crowns of national heroes. However instead her gender identity was placed into question, negating the well deserved glory, at least and hopefully for a short time only.
Having spent my childhood in sport crazy South Africa during the astounding world record days of backstroke swimmer 12 year old hero, Karen Muir, I understand the excitement of a teenage wonder and sincerely hope that she will safely remain recognized as a woman with an outstanding achievement. Looking at the pictures she seems to me like a magnificently well built young woman. Caster Semenya is muscular and broad. Seven of the women in the field competed in strappy bra tops complimented by either boy shorts or bikini-style bottoms; Caster Semenya raced in a top that looked more like a tight half T-shirt and in jammer-style shorts that extended down nearly to her knees. She won by more than two seconds in a race in which it can be normal to win by hundredths.
The runner-up, Kenya’s Janeth Jepkosgei, was the 2007 Worlds winner in this event. After the amazing run, the IAAF’s general secretary, Pierre Weiss, disclosed that the investigation was two-fold, ongoing both in South Africa and in Berlin. Officials citing medical privacy concerns, still mentioned the age old and now almost extinct gender verification tests will be conducted to determine her gender. Davies stressed that the situation was not one in which authorities suspect fraud — that is, the deliberate entry of one known to be a man in a woman’s race. Instead, he said, the question is whether Caster Semenya is entitled to be in the women’s draw. “There is a need, of course, to make sure that the rules are followed and make clear women should compete in women’s competitions,” he said, adding the IAAF was “absolutely” taking the matter “seriously.”
The complexities of the matter are hardly limited to issues of gender. Caster Semenya is black in a country still struggling to emerge from decades of institutionalized racism. From a time when black South Africans could not compete against white South Africans and from a reality where the Country was specifically banned from the Olympics and International sport. Her gold is South Africa’s first medal at the 2009 Worlds and that country’s track and field authorities had to know going into these championships that it might well be South Africa’s only medal. Should this young star have been tossed onto the world stage in such a manner and should the competitors and officials have welcomed her in this unorthodox fashion simply for how she looks? What about her dignity as a human, an ambassador for her Country and as an athlete.
Her coach, Michael Seme, was quoted in a story published on the South African website sport24 as saying, “We understand that people will ask questions because she looks like a man. It’s a natural reaction and it’s only human to be curious.” However Castor does not have male body parts and considers herself a woman so what the heck – just because she is so good and has a gorgeous muscular physique. Gender verification can involve medical and other physical evaluations that require expertise in gynecology, psychology, internal medicine and in the combination of features that typically distinguish female from male.
It used to be the case in the 1960s in Olympic circles that sex-verification tests were common for female athletes. The IOC in the late 1990s abolished widespread use of the practice. Even so, there remain some cases in international competitions in which the gender of an athlete becomes at issue. In 2006, for instance, a middle-distance runner from India, Santhi Soudarajan, lost her silver medal at the Asian Games after failing a sex-verification test.
Information obtained from other news sources: AP Berlin- By Ryan Lucas and Caster Semenya: The champion, the controversy Alan Abrahamson / Universal Sports http://www.universalsports.com/ViewArticle.dbml?and previously blogged by Melanie Nathan for www.Lezgetreal.com