Caster Semenya the Controversy
Posted by shadmia on August 27, 2009
Call me naive, trusting or even gullible but I really did not think that proving one’s gender was a complicated process. If in doubt check the genitalia – yes, I’ve heard of hermaphrodites but they don’t apply in this case – boys have penises and girls have vaginas. It should not be more complicated than that.
However in the case of Caster Semenya, it appears to be very complicated, so complicated in fact that she has been required to undergo a series of tests to determine her gender. The result of these tests is important because it will determine whether she can keep the gold medals she has already won and whether she can continue to compete as a girl on the international stage.
Caster Semenya is an 18-year-old South African runner who thoroughly dominated the competition and easily won the women’s 800m race at the World Championships in Athletics in Berlin on Aug. 19th, 2009. But her muscular build and deep voice have raised doubts about her eligibility to compete as a woman.
Preliminary test results have shown that Caster Semenya has three times the normal female level of testosterone, which is the biggest difference between males and females.
Sex verification in athletics was introduced in 1966, when female competitors had to stand naked in front of a committee and were subjected to inspection of their external genitalia. The so called Nude Parades were later replaced by a chromosome test, which also proved to be limited. These days, the tests consist of genetic, gynecological, psychological, and endocrine tests. Tests are only done when suspicion or challenge arises.
Caster Semenya returned to her native South Africa after the competition to a hero’s welcome. Her supporters made thinly veiled charges of racism against the IAAF (International Association of Athletics Federations), the organization performing the gender tests.
South Africa’s Athletics president Leonard Chuene claims: “There is no need to worry about ‘other people’s tests.” He spoke out at a press conference saying:
“Yes, indeed, she’s a girl. We are not going to allow Europeans to describe and define our children.”
Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, ex-wife of former President Nelson Mandela, also spoke out.
“To the world out there, who conducted those pseudo-tests to test our gender, they can stuff their insult,” she said. “This is our little girl, and nobody is going to perform any tests on her. We have defeated difficult situations in the history of this country. Don’t touch us.”
Even South African President Jacob Zuma and many other organizations criticized the IAAF for the testing and insisted that Semenya will not be stripped of her gold medal in the 800-meter world championship. The massive outpouring, along with a Facebook fan page with more than 45,000 members, underscored the raw nerve exposed in South Africa by questions about Semenya’s sex.
“Ms. Semenya has also reminded the world of the importance of the rights to human dignity and privacy which should be enjoyed by all human beings,” President Jacob Zuma said. “In recognition of the supremacy of these rights, we wish to register our displeasure at the manner in which Ms. Semenya has been treated.”
Semenya, who comes from a poor rural background in Limpopo province in northern South Africa, has grappled with the consequences of looking boyish all her life. She grew up with four sisters and a brother in the dusty village of Fairlie, about 40 miles from the nearest town.
Being a girl in an African village meant girls’ chores: fetching water, washing dishes, cleaning the house. But in her free time, she ran off to play soccer with the boys.
The newspaper Beeld quoted high school principal Eric Modiba as saying that Semenya always wore pants instead of skirts, played rough-and-tumble with the boys and that he didn’t realize she was a girl until she was in the 11th grade.
If the teasing hurt her, she kept the pain hidden, said her grandmother Maputhi Sekgala. Her mother, Dorcas, watched the world championship race on television, shedding tears of joy when Caster streaked to victory.
Semenya’s father, Jacob Semenya, pleaded: “I wish they would leave my daughter alone.”
“She is my little girl. I raised her and I have never doubted her gender. She is a woman and I can repeat that a million times,” Semenya told a Sowetan newspaper.
Dorcas Semenya, 50, is fierce in Caster’s defense. She refused to let the questions about her daughter’s gender dilute the moment of triumph.
“She’s a girl. I’m the mother of that girl. I’m the one that knows about Caster. If they want to know about Caster, tell them to come to me.”
“They’re jealous of my daughter,” she said. “It’s the first girl in the black people doing such things. That’s why they say those things.”
Nick Davies, spokesman for the IAAF, said it was clear that whatever the results of the gender tests, “clearly it was not her fault.”
“It’s a medical issue. You’re talking about someone’s life. She was born, christened and grew up a woman,” he said in an interview with the BBC. The aim of the tests, he said, was to discover whether anything gave her an unfair advantage.