Semenya’s ecstacy and agony


TRIUMPH followed by derision and humiliation. Ecstasy followed by agony. This has been the story of Caster Semenya’s life ever since, as an 18 year old, she won the 800m in 1 minute 55.45 at the 2009 2009 IAAF world championships in Berlin, Germany.

Semenya’s greatest moment quickly proved to be the beginning of her worst nightmare….

Shortly after the race, a fax sent to the wrong person (and subsequently leaked) divulged that the South African had been instructed to undergo a gender-determination test. Caught off guard, IAAF officials were forced to confirm that that Semenya had indeed been instructed to undergo “sex determination testing” to prove she was eligible to run as a woman.

Nick Davies, an IAAF spokesperson, said the federation had started questions about her ever since she had run the fastest time in the world – 1 minutes 56.72 seconds – at the 2009 Africa Junior Championships.

In what seemed like an attempt to win the IAAF as much time as possible, Davies described the tests required to determine the gender of an athlete as “an extremely complex procedure”. He said it would involve doctors, scientists, gynaecologists and psychologists, and because of this results would not be known for several weeks.

And then he admitted: “The situation today is that we do not have any conclusive evidence that she should not be allowed to run.”

“It would be wrong today to take a decision to withdraw an athlete. This is a medical condition. It is nothing that she has done. There is a need to make sure rules are followed. We are more concerned for the person and not to make this as something that is humiliating.”

But attempts at humiliating Semenya had already started….

Western media began suggesting that her world-class performances were the consequence of performance-enhancing drugs. The IAAF responded by reiterating that Semenya had been requested to undergo gender-verification tests.

Later, at a media briefing, Pierre Weiss, the general secretary of the IAAF, explained that Semenya had been instructed to undergo these tests because of “ambiguity” and not because the IAAF suspected her of knowingly cheating.

But by then, Semenya had already been declared an “imposter” by the court of public opinion, and certainly by her 800m rivals. Vitriol had already started flying soon after the South African’s triumph in Berlin. Italy’s Elisa Cusma, who finished sixth in the race, spat out: “These kind of people should not run with us. For me, she is not a woman. She is a man.”

And Russia’s Mariya Savinova, who finished fifth, predicted to journalists from her home country that Semenya would not pass the gender verification test. “Just look at her,” she said.

Almost a decade later, Semenya’s “status” has still not been resolved, with her sexual history being flaunted by athletics officials on a world stage for all to see and debate.

The treatment meted out to her has been angrily received by the majority of South Africans, with the IAAF, particularly, coming in for scathing criticism for allowing her gender to be questioned so publically. Those seeking support for Semenya’s plight in the Charter of the International Olympic Committee, to which the IAAF is allied, will be disappointed.

Although Clause 4 of the Charter states that “[T]he practice of sport is a human right. Every individual must have the possibility of practising sport, without discrimination of any kind and in the Olympic spirit, which requires mutual understanding with a spirit of friendship, solidarity and fair play”, Clause 7 takes another tack….

“Any entry is subject to acceptance by the IOC, which may at its discretion, at any time, refuse any entry, without indication of grounds. Nobody is entitled as of right to participate in the Olympic Games,” the clause states

But there are other questions revolving around Semenya that should be of extreme concern to both the IAAF and the IOC. Chief among these centre on accusations of colonialism and racism by European and US controlling bodies in particular.

These are issues that could severely test the unity and credibility of the two world bodies.

The definition of a woman has sparked a debate that has to-ed and fro-ed across the athletics world. The argument that Semenya does not “look like a woman”, has “muscles”, is “too fast” and has a deep, “masculine” voice, have been countered by another question, notably: “Why should the definition of a woman be based on the looks and physiology of a “European” woman?”

The notion that congenitally high levels of testosterone in Semenya’s physiology should disqualify her from being regarded as a woman has also been challenged.

One of the counter-arguments has been the fact that although the double-jointed ankles of the swimmer, Michael Phelps, gave him an advantage over his rivals in the pool, never saw him being penalised.

Tennis star Andy Roddick was another athlete pointed out by Semenya supporters. Roddick’s abnormally flexible spine, was often used to explain his powerful serves and overhead smashes. But again, he was not penalised for this.

In a 1995 study, researcher MJ Kane stated: “The justification for sex testing/gender verification as a way to uphold and ensure a “level-playing field” (for example., by identifying and policing women’s sport spaces to prevent male “invaders”) is built on the assumption that categorically all men are faster, stronger, and better at sport than all women.

“In this way, sport maintains the myth of absolute categorical sex/gender differences between men and women.”

And it is a myth. Kane contended that many women outperform men in a range of sports, “including traditionally male-dominated sports”.

For the moment, the policies of the IAAF require sex testing only for female athletes and transsexuals. The question is: why should this be so?

In a world, in which gender discrimination is coming under increased scrutiny, surely this bastion should be stormed by those seeking equality in all areas of male-female relationships.

The restructuring of sport should be a useful place to start. And the storming of another bastion – European and US domination in the top echelons of administration – might provide the perfect launching pad.

Dougie Oakes has been a journalist for more than 30 years, specialising in South Africa as well as the UK in sportswriting, politics and features. He is also Independent Media’s Opinion Editor