The questions raised by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) about the gender of South African athlete Caster Semenya are deplorable. As a result of what is essentially nasty gossip she is being forced to undergo invasive gender verification testing. The tests involve a physical medical evaluation, input from gynecologists, endocrinologists, psychologists, gender experts, and internal medicine specialists, and they take weeks to complete.
Reports say that doubt was publicly cast on Semenya just hours before she was to run the 800 meter race at the World Athletics Championships in Berlin. It’s suspicious and unfair to humiliate an athlete mere hours before a competition. But Semenya really stuck it to IAAF officials by handily winning the race, accepting her gold medal, and refusing to publicly address the controversy. Even her competitors expressed disdain for the way she has been treated.
One of the nonsensical reasons IAAF officials gave for the gender verification tests was Caster’s recent athletic improvements. Which begs the question, did she recently become a man? It’s these kind of lame excuses that make the matter all the more shameful.
Those who populate the highest realms of international competitive sports need to take a hard look in the mirror. Racism and sexism have had comfy homes there for a long time. If they really wish to provide a fair playing field, maybe they should undergo anti-discrimination verification testing instead.
This has a lot more to do with Semenya not embodying Western ideals of femininity and the fact that she is a rising athletic star threatening institutional legacies, than any real evidence that she isn’t a woman. But are we really surprised that an African woman who is breaking records is being slandered? Caster’s mother, Dorcus Semenya, says “They are jealous. I say to them, go to hell, you don’t know what you’re saying. They’re jealous because they don’t want black people improving their status.”
The governing African National Congress has vehemently condemned the sex test and the president of its youth league, Julius Malema, has lambasted the IAAF for “this attack on this beautiful woman”. South Africa plans to lodge an official complaint with the UN high commissioner for human rights for undermining Semenya’s rights and privacy.
Leonard Chuene, the head of South African athletics who has stepped down from the IAAF until the matter is settled, said: “We are talking about a child here, whose name has been dragged through the dirt by an organisation which should know better.
“If gender tests have to take place, they should have been done quietly. It is a taboo subject. How can a girl live with this stigma? By going public on the tests, the IAAF has let down this young child, and I will fight tooth and nail to protect her.”
Describing the speculation about Semenya’s gender as “racist”, he added: “Who are white people to question the makeup of an African girl?
“I say this is racism, pure and simple. In Africa, as in any other country, parents look at new babies and can see straight away whether to raise them as a boy or a girl. We are now being told that it is not so simple. But the people who question these things have no idea how much shame such a slur can bring on a family.
“They are doubting the parents of this child and questioning the way they brought her up. God has his say on what people are. He made us all. A young girl has no input as she enters the world on what she will look like.
“It is outrageous for people from other countries to tell us ‘We want to take her to a laboratory because we don’t like her nose, or her figure.'”
I saw pictures and video footage of Caster, and for the life of me I couldn’t see anything that should disqualify her from being considered, and treated as, a woman. She is a very athletic woman, and looks similar to a lot of women who compete at her level. Do male athletes have to undergo penis checks if they are too thin or their facial features aren’t manly enough or voices are too high? I don’t think so. Shame on those who raised this issue in the first place and shame on the officials who took it seriously.
No matter what the tests say about Caster’s chromosomes, I already know she is a woman, and a beautiful one at that.