The humiliation of Caster Semenya

Caster SemenyaIn the wake of Caster Semenya's victory in the women's 800m track event at the world championships in Berlin recently, debate has erupted with a velocity that would leave the runner herself in the dust: is she a man or is she a woman?

Conversations have bristled with aspersions and slander. Could a womanly being ever be housed within that rippling, muscular carapace? Was it really a female that hurtled bullet-like towards the finish line, leaving the crowd gasping for breath before it found its voice and began booing the unknown 18-year-old South African runner? Is it fair that an athlete who clearly fails to comply with the prototype of a real woman — she doesn't even possess breasts! — be allowed to compete against those who have obediently ticked all the aesthetic boxes?

These urgent interrogations will be laid to rest by the results of gender verification tests. But the pressing issue is not whether Semenya is male, hyper-androgynous, or, as she claims, 'entirely female', and hence entitled to her gold medal. More burdensome by far is the ferocious public response to a predicament that clearly called for maturity and restraint.

Like participants in a ghastly Milgram torture experiment, onlookers treated Semenya with predictable cruelty, thoughtlessly following the leader as they heaped contempt upon the vulnerable young woman caught unwittingly in the headlights.

It was only when she arrived home to a large and impassioned crowd of supporters that Semenya finally tasted the glory that had failed to materialise in Berlin.

But even here, common sense had been abandoned, this time in favour of nationalistic fervour and the predictable claim that the controversy was the result of racism. (The fact that the black-skinned Usain Bolt had thrilled the same Berlin crowd with his own brand of athletic prowess was conveniently ignored.)

And even before Semenya had stepped off the plane, supporters were laying claim to her hotly contested gender, with placards insisting that 'Caster is 100 per cent woman'.

In an abstract sense, the public humiliation of Caster Semenya is tainted by politics. After all, she represents a nation of people that, having once held a high curiosity value amongst imperial interlopers, are now politically irrelevant and easily dismissed.

But beyond the relative fatuity of politics, the debacle touches a nerve inflamed less by race than human dignity and the conditional way in which we apply it. With her flat chest, sonorous voice and neat cornrows, Semenya is a round peg resolutely resisting the square hole into which society would pound her.

Disregarding her dignity, much less the psychological trauma afflicted on her by the experience, we have behaved like a group of bullies in year three, passing Pavlovian judgement and exposing our acute resistance to those we cannot categorise.

Clearly, our society is not as capable as it thinks it is of broadening its definitions — and its collective mind — to accommodate the range of people that are born into it.

While gender testing is not new, the public nature of the Semenya inquiry has prompted difficult questions to which there are no ready answers. Can we measure a person's gender at face value, or is an examination of their endogenous features crucial to determining who they are at their very core? Should intersex athletes be disbarred from competition, exiled from those securely confirmed as either male or female?

Quoted in the UK Times online, gender testing expert Professor Kath Woodward confirms that gender is complex and gender verification not necessarily straightforward. 'More people than we imagine do not conform neatly to the genetic and physical criteria that mark the two sexes,' she says.

Consequently, women with female chromosomes might present with masculine traits, while male chromosomes might not prevent a girl from morphing into an unconventionally petite and beautiful woman. Perhaps it is this primordial mystery of where each of us falls along the gender continuum that has fuelled the voices of dissent.

With these facts, such as they are, at the forefront, it is essential that prudence prevail when we consider how far we are willing to go to determine the gender of our athletes, and which factor holds more sway in determining a person's gender: chromosomes, hormones, social stereotyping, self-awareness or arbitrary testing by sporting bodies.

For Caster Semenya, time alone will tell whether her gender identity and athletic career are strong enough to withstand the events at Berlin, or whether the track where she won the 800 m will loom large as the place where the world passed its own judgment on who she was.

Catherine MarshallCatherine Marshall is a South Africa journalist now living in Sydney. She works for Jesuit Communications.

Topic tags: south african athlete, caster semenya, berlin, 800 m, gender, hyper-androgynous, kath woodward



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Existing comments

Thank you for your comment - I am very concerned at the way our community feed on the personal issues for any person who find themselves in the public view because of some particular issue - I have no respect for the journalist and the media who feed on it but wonder more about the culture which has developed that feed on it - I buy the daily paper and read very little of it, turn on the TV and watch very little of it and turn on the computer and spend little time on it - so maybe I miss out, but I get to see and read what I need.
margaret o'reilly | 31 August 2009

"maturity and restraint" indeed.
Catherine Marshall is setting the standard of public discussion far too high in this age of media hyperbole and political exploitation of sport.
The dispute over this South African teenager's gender has so many aspects that the media thrive on - a superb athlete, sexually ambiguous, a fragile innocent in a country of dubious probity, who runs because she loves it and is good at it.

And she is performing in Berlin not far from the laboratories where East German scientists in the 1980s were chemically producing female athletes with Adonis-like bodies.

Caster Semenya is living proof that gender, like sexual orientation, is not an absolute. It manifests itself on a sliding scale. The majority of us humamn beings who accept our categorization at birth as male or female sometimes find it hard to deal with boys and girls, men and women, whose physical abilities and /or sexual inclinations defy our conditioned expectations.

Whatever the ruling on Caster's gender may she have a happy and productive life, whatever she does with her athletic talents.

I hope Catherine Marshall's article inspires some worthwhile public conversation, that is both mature and retrained.
Uncle Pat | 31 August 2009

Perhaps we need to consider whether ranking human beings on the race track, or anywhere else, is a valid Christian pursuit. While Chariots of Fire may condone such practice as a way to bring glory to God, how many widows and orphans does it help? Surely there are other ways of bringing glory to God besides classing most people as losers?
Dennis Miles | 31 August 2009

Catherine Marshall is quite right. Media treatment of this poor girl is disgraceful. They are driven solely by the possibility of a sensational story, without regard to sport, decency or well-being of a fellow human being. History is ignored. They neglect the fact that at the Olympics last year and the World Championships in 2007 the very same event was won by two young girls from Kenya, who came from nowhere, dominated the event as much as Caster Samenya, and ran similar times. Purely on appearance the Kenyan girls are accepted and the South African hounded. That is not sport, and it is not sports reporting.
Kevin Prendergast | 31 August 2009

Thank you for this balanced, non-sensational article. You have risen above most of your colleagues, who decided to sensationalise this very private and sensitive issue, with utter disregard for the girl's rights. We need more journalists like you!
Jewel | 31 August 2009

Surely, the statement that testing by sporting bodies would be `arbitrary` is unfair and indeed incorrect. One question in my mind is how this young person was allowed by family or sporting authorities in SA to grow up, and be exposed this far in such a public activity without medical verification of gender and appropriate treatment, if there is a chromosomal or endocrine dysfunction, as frankly there seems to be. To be phenotypically male one needs a fully functioning and expressed Y chromosome; between the default position of being female and fully male, there are genetic mosaics and/or only partly expressed Y chromosomes, and it would distort sporting competitions if they competed on open terms with fully phenotypic females. That`s just how it is!
Eugene | 01 September 2009

Eugene, thank you for your contribution.
It makes me think that 'sporting competition', even if limited to fully phenotypical competitors, is for the most part distorted.
One of the attractions for spectators of competitive sport is the conflict of talents - a champion team v a team of champions, skill and finesse v brute strength & force, David v Goliath, the veteran's experience v
youthful enthusiasm, etc.
If major sporting comeptitions are to continue to be divided along male/female lines and situations like the Semenya brouhaha are to be avoided, then maybe clear criteria will need to be met BEFORE an athlete is accepted in either category.
Although I can't think of a champion male athlete being accused of being phenotypically female.
Uncle Pat | 01 September 2009

Well, of course, Uncle Pat. He wouldn't win if he was like that. It would be a handicap. But in the female athlete's case it is an unfair advantage. No fault of the unfortunate Caster and her like, of course. But Eugene is quite right.
Gavan | 01 September 2009


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