Day 86 – The Track That I’m On

I read a fantastic article today by Ariel Levy of the New Yorker on the topic of Caster Semenya and the ambiguities of gender determination. It was very long, and very interesting. Weirdly I don’t remember discussing this issue with many people even though it was such a big news story at the time and it’s probably the first time I’ve thought of it since. Is it that people don’t want to discuss or think about something that it too difficult to properly define? Anyway I finished the article with much clearer thoughts on the issue, though not everyone else is so sure. The IAAF have yet to decide where they stand, despite numerous ‘tests’ being carried out as far back as last April.

The South Africa government have already determined that Semenya can compete with the women in South Africa, although it is interesting in its own right that the government and not Athletics South Africa who have decided this. It does give the impression of a political statement rather than a clear policy on how to handle alleged cases of intersex people in sporting. ASA in a further development asked Semenya not to compete until the IAAF reveal their verdict.

My personal opinion is simply one of sympathy for Semenya herself. She arrived at the World Championships in Berlin last year believing herself to be a woman only to be forced to undergo, presumably humiliating, gender tests. She was allowed compete and went on to win a gold medal and has been since then dragged back and forth through the international media. The answer to the question of whether the situation could have been handled better is an easy one. Absolutely. As Levy puts it in her article “The only thing more slippery than the science in the Semenya case is the agendas of the men who have involved themselves in it. There is a bounty of political gain for whoever spins the story most successfully” At the end of the day there seems to be a host of people, officials, athletes, media and commentators who have forgotten that we are talking about a human being here. Yes there needs to be a decision made based on determination of gender, as gender is currently how athletics competitions are divided, but a more sensitive humanist approach is surely possible?

This piece out of the article sums it up for me: “But, setting aside the issue of gender, there is still no such thing as a level playing field in sports. Different bodies have physical attributes, even abnormalities, that may provide a distinct advantage in one sport or another. The N.B.A., for instance, has had several players with acromegaly—the overproduction of growth hormone. Michael Phelps, who has won fourteen Olympic gold medals, has unusually long arms and is said to have double-jointed elbows, knees, and ankles. Is Caster Semenya’s alleged extra testosterone really so different?”

There was also an interesting comment from another website: “So, let me get this straight. If science resolves that Caster is neither “all female” nor “all male”, is she likewise ineligible to participate as a male in a sport where being female may provide an advantage, e.g. gymnastics?” It makes you think.

Levy also documented in her article the case of Wilfred Daniels, a famous South African athlete who was prevented from competing internationally because of apartheid. He is a local hero who lives a very comfortable life, who has travelled the world and met most of his heroes, but he could’ve had a very different life, as a champion. Semenya is at that crossroads today.

The IAAF expect to make their decision by June as to whether she can compete in their competitions. I, for one, hope that she can, not irregardless of the tests but in compliance with what hopefully is a clearer policy on gender determination. She may have a comfortable life ahead anyway as she undoubtably has the support of the people and governenment in South Africa, but for all that she’s been through I think she deserves more.

To read more:

Quote of the day: “The essence of our effort to see that every child has a chance must be to assure each an equal opportunity, not to become equal, but to become different – to realize whatever unique potential of body, mind and spirit he or she possesses” – John Fischer


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