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Mud sticks

Yesterday, I wrote about the appalling way that Caster Semenya has been treated after the IAAF revealed that she had been asked to undergo gender verification testing, a procedure which is normally kept private until an athlete has ‘failed’ the test, for obvious reasons of sensitivity.

It has led to much wild speculation, much of it dreadfully uninformed, and open accusations from fellow competitors such as the Italian Elisa Piccione, who finished sixth behind Semenya in the 800 metres final: “For me, she is not a woman.” It was a calculated and utterly groundless personal attack based on Semenya’s physical appearance and deep voice – neither of which are unique for a female athlete (think Maria Mutola or Fatima Whitbread, for starters).

What next? Accusing any breakthrough performer of doping just because they’re faster than you? Or deciding that the bloke sitting next to you on the train must be gay because he’s wearing a pink shirt and is well-groomed?

There are two problems with stereotyping. Firstly, while some people may conform to a certain stereotype, we do not all obey them rigidly. A trivial example: my 20-month old son’s favourite colour is currently pink, and I’m not exactly jumping to any conclusions about his sexual orientation.

Secondly, when someone is publicly given a derogatory or accusatory label, mud tends to stick, and becomes impossible to wash off. No doubt Semenya will be dogged by black clouds for the rest of her career (she is still only 18). Just ask former England footballer Graeme Le Saux, who was regularly treated to homophobic abuse – from both fans and, most scandalously, on the field by Robbie Fowler – because, atypically for a footballer, he was educated, read the Guardian, and had an appreciation for the arts. (Le Saux is married with two children, but why let the facts get in the way of an urban myth?)

It is also worth bearing in mind that it is possible for an athlete to be born female – i.e. with two X chromosomes, rather than X and Y – and be completely unaware that they are in fact technically ineligible to compete as a woman (according to the sporting authorities’ arbitrary definition). It is not a case of cheating; more a matter of being deemed to have an ‘unfair competitive advantage’, whatever that is.

For more detail on events surrounding Semenya and the scientific process behind gender verification and ‘intersex conditions’, I would recommend articles in today’s Times by Sports Journalist of the Year Matthew Syed and science editor Mark Henderson.

Syed perhaps says it best in his piece, highlighting the moral and emotional issues behind this needless controversy.

Could [the authorities] not have worked their way through the gender-verification process, only breaking cover if the athlete failed the test? Should this confidentiality not be part and parcel of IAAF procedure? In short, could this not have been handled with infinitely greater sensitivity, given the incalculable trauma that Semenya has now had to endure?

This ought to have been an uplifting story of how an 18-year-old sports science student from Pretoria University, who grew up in Ga-Masehlong, a village near the northern city of Polokwane, became world champion.

It ought to have been an inspirational story of personal triumph against the odds. It ought to have been a story of hope and optimism, only morphing into something different in the event of a failed test. It is difficult to suppress the feeling that, whatever happens hereafter, a young and vulnerable athlete has been cruelly let down by the very authorities that ought to have protected her.

It is saddening to see how both the IAAF and her fellow competitors have treated Semenya in this whole affair; equally, it was gratifying to see that the Berlin crowd applauded her warmly at her medal ceremony yesterday.

Already the counter-whispers of racist and political agendas are starting to emerge, and it is unlikely the doubts will be fully eradicated even when the results of Semenya’s tests are announced. (As Henderson explains in his article, there is often no definitive black-and-white answer in matters of gender verification.)

As I said at the beginning of yesterday’s post, it should be a simple matter. It isn’t.

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

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