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The (un)fairer sex?

It should be an easy question, with an easy answer. Is Caster Semenya, the 18-year old South African who became world champion in the women’s 800 metres last night, male or female?

However, the world is not an easy place. In reality, accurate gender verification is somewhat more difficult than asking an athlete to pull down their shorts. It is a complicated, multi-faceted process which looks for any of 20 or more ‘intersex conditions’ in order to determine an athlete’s eligibility to compete in women’s events. For instance, a person might (extremely rarely) be born with female genitalia but male chromosomes, something a simple physical examination would not reveal.

The facts – those we know – are these:

An unknown as recently as three weeks ago, Semenya has burst onto the global scene from nowhere, setting the fastest time in the world this year on July 31st, and then going faster still en route to World Championship gold last night.

That time of 1:55.45 was nine seconds faster than her best last season. It is also 2.39s faster than any other woman has run this season; indeed, only three women in the past 20 years – Maria Mutola, Jolanda Ceplak and Pamela Jelimo – have run faster. However, her improvement can be feasibly explained by better training, form, and the natural leaps in improvement that can occur in passing from 17 to 18. (And Jelimo, also 18 then, recorded not one but six quicker times last season, including a best of 1:54:01 which stands as the fastest time run by any female since 1983, all without a whiff of he/she suspicion.)

There is also no denying that Semenya has a muscular, masculine build. But then so did Mutola, who won one Olympic and three World Championship gold medals in over a decade of superlative middle distance running, again without any serious questions ever being raised.

Those are the facts. Pretty much everything else which has inevitably become the subject of highly publicised speculation since yesterday’s IAAF announcement that it had asked for Semenya to undergo the gender verification process three weeks ago (it takes several weeks to complete) is just that: speculation.

And, of course, the problem with such scandalous rumour-mongering is that, regardless of the actual truth of the matter, mud sticks.

Naturally, the South African athletics federation is defending its athlete, with their general manager Molatelo Malehopo insisting, “She is a female. We are completely sure about that. We would not have entered her into the female competition if we had any doubts.” Although, of course, they have no way of knowing for sure, having not conducted any verification procedures themselves; no national federation is obliged to do so.

Due to the sensitive nature of gender verification tests, the IAAF has traditionally not publicised them until an athlete has been declared ineligible by the procedure. Which makes the timing of the announcement yesterday all the more puzzling. At best they considered that the whispers – some of them neither quiet nor subtle – which have been circulating on internet forums and among her fellow competitors for the past three weeks had reached such levels that they felt they had no choice other than to ham-fistedly confirm that action was already being taken. At worst, it was a deliberate, political attempt into embarrassing the South Africans into withdrawing Semenya to avoid further controversy.

Whatever the reason, it hasn’t made things better. And it certainly hasn’t quelled the rumours.

Anyhow, at the risk of ruining a good witch-hunt, let’s be clear that the IAAF’s request is hardly unique, nor is it racist, sexist, or an accusation of deception or cheating or doping. It is nothing more than a test of eligibility, a determination of whether the presence of one or more intersex conditions confers an unfair advantage.

For Semenya to have raced and won last night after public confirmation of her test is, at best, humiliating – even if the test eventually declares her eligible to run as a woman, the whispers will never go away. At worst, there is the example of Indian 800 metre runner Santhi Soundarajan, who was stripped of a silver medal at the 2006 Asian Games after failing a gender testing procedure; she subsequently attempted suicide, unsuccessfully.

In all the hullaballoo, it is easy to forget there is a young human being at the heart of this controversy, and one who is likely blameless of any crime other than being, genetically, a statistical oddity. Unless it is proven that she has deliberately attempted to deceive, Caster Semenya is more deserving of sympathy than suspicion.

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About Tim
Father of three. Bit of a geek. That's all, folks.

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