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Caster Semenya – Sex-Testing Champion Athletes

August 28, 2009
(AP Photo/Anja Niedringhaus, File)

(AP Photo/Anja Niedringhaus, File)

South African runner Caster Semenya, winner of the 800 meters in the International Association of Athletics Federations World Championships is paying a bittersweet price for her victory. The world-class, 18-year-old athlete is the most recent target of gender discrimination, fueling debates on ‘gender testing’.

Ever since finding her success in sports, rumors spread like wild fire on her masculinity, Semenya’s,

“physique and powerful style have sparked speculation in recent months that she may not be entirely female.” (The Age)

Fueling the debate, her coach Michael Seme ironically chimed in with humiliating remarks,

“We understand that people will ask questions because she looks like a man. It’s a natural reaction and it’s only human to be curious. People probably have the right to ask such questions if they are in doubt. But I can give you the telephone numbers of her roommates in Berlin. They have already seen her naked in the showers and she has nothing to hide.”

(AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

(AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

Why does one always have to justify their success?

Despite reaching the heights of victory at such a young age, Semenya now faces the challenge of overcoming the gender politics at play in International Sports.

Interestingly, numerous runway models have similar slender physiques and boyish looks, like the British model, Agyness Deyn, however their gender is never questioned. Why does a woman need to expose to prove her heterosexuality?

Similarly,

“When Martina Navratilova dominated women’s tennis and proudly exposed her chiseled biceps years before Hollywood gave its imprimatur to gals with “guns,” players complained that she “must have a chromosome loose somewhere.”(Dave Zirin, Alternet).

Anna Kournikova or Martina Navratilova, which one out of these two women has a female (XX) sex chromosome? Are we going to question every person’s gender based on their physical dimensions and attributes?

Gender mainstreaming should be implemented to answer these questions and make fair judgments when passing policies like, ‘gender testing’. It is highly rare that we hear of men undergoing such testing, however women are often an easy target due to the hidden social inequalities at play between women and men in many areas of the society.

Nevertheless, gender mainstreaming calls for gender equality and a fair and equal treatment of men and women. Engendering sports would in turn allow for a better understanding of the impact of planned policies on both genders and the necessary modifications before their full implementation.

(AP Photo/Michael Probst)

(AP Photo/Michael Probst)

If both men and women are subjected to gender testing at an equal rate, there would be no debate, but until that happens, no one deserves the humiliation of proving their biological identity.

For more info on Caster Semenya:  See J. Mack’s article, Too fast to be a girl.

24 Comments
  1. Michael Cassidy permalink
    August 29, 2009 2:36 am

    As a South African, we all think its pretty appalling ! But then we have a constitution that wouldn’t let anything like this happen here, despite at times rampant male domination in the culture.
    I just have one question : Are we now going to test all the male sports stars with soft or squeaky voices or are too thin and waspish?

    • Yale permalink
      August 29, 2009 4:00 am

      Since when is waspish a term only associated with women?

  2. Yale permalink
    August 29, 2009 7:35 am

    Maria,

    You are inferring the gender testing of Caster is somehow gender discrimination, but you’ve missed the underlying reason for gender tests in athletics. The practice of testing athletes to define between man and woman will continue to have a place in sports. An athlete’s competitive drive to win can often cause them to take erroneous measures to ensure victory. For instance, we’ve see athletes disregard the health of their bodies to take performance enhancing drugs. How far will an athlete go to win? Possibly a sex reassignment operation? Some kind of criteria must be established to draw the boundary between men and women in sports not only because of our physiological differences but to deter athletes willing to do anything to win. The issue at play isn’t whether or not gender testing athletes is gender discrimination, but rather how can you properly classify individuals as female or male for the sake of athletic competition.

    “Why does one always have to justify their success?” – Well, you aren’t ALWAYS required to justify your success. However, when your success comes in an unusual fashion that follows a similar pattern to previous cheaters; it raises the question of the legitimacy of your success. In the case of Caster, she went from an unknown athlete to a world champion in less than a year. Athletes devote a significant period of their life to achieving success. When someone has such a rapid rise to athletic success, it is unusual and could potential be due to foul play (but clearly not always). Because there is a correlation to an athlete’s rapid success and foul play, it becomes reasonable to question his/her success.

    In terms of your use of the British model as an example, you’ve missed the mark. The reason why Agyness’ gender doesn’t come into play is because females and males can equally make good models for their respective clothing lines. However, in the realm of sports physiological differences between the sexes allow males to reach greater speeds, jump higher, throw farther, and lift more weight.

    “Are we going to question every person’s gender based on their physical dimensions and attributes?” – No, Caster’s physical appearance isn’t the sole reason for questioning her ability to compete as a woman. Her unusual rapid rise from unknown to world champion as described earlier is also fueling the questioning of her gender.

    “If both men and women are subjected to gender testing at an equal rate, there would be no debate, but until that happens, no one deserves the humiliation of proving their biological identity.” – There is almost no reason for athletes competing as males to undergo gender testing. If a female competes as a male, she is doing nothing to help her chances of winning (due to the fact that the field of male athletes will generally be faster and stronger than their female counterparts). However, a male athlete competing as a female does give him an unfair advantage. The reason for gender testing isn’t to discriminate but to ensure a level playing field for the rest of the female athletes. Imagine you finished fourth in the women’s high jump at the 1936 Olympics; missing the bronze medal because the gold medal finisher was really a male competing as a female. Had it not been for questioning of Hermann Ratjen’s gender, you would have never gotten the bronze medal you deserved.

  3. August 30, 2009 3:59 am

    Ok first of all “An athlete’s competitive drive to win can often cause them to take erroneous measures to ensure victory” is not a fair comment in the context of this story. Because in that case every woman who ever came first would have been tested. Fair right? That did not happen so its obvious that her looks were a determining factor in questioning her.

    Its also time to wake up and see that racial and gender profiling have become more common than you would think or want them to be. I don’t know how much you know about the game of cricket but Sri Lanka’s Murli has been surrounded by such controversy for his bowling action which some beleive is illegal according to the rules of the game. He has been tested three times in his career of 10+ years, undergoing various suspensions and bans only to be determined all 3 times that there was nothing wrong with his action. There was also his counterpart Shane Warne who played for the Australian team and enjoyed equal if not more success in his 10+ years and was never questioned until he was banned for life in 2007 for substance abuse marking it the end of his career. Point is that these things are happening regardless of your beliefs.

    Its easy to sit here and talk but everyone deserves credit for their success and it means a lot more to her than you or anyone else so I thinks it only fair to let her deservedly enjoy it too, wouldn’t you want to? In my opinion its because of her appearance and origin that she is being questioned and there is absolutely no doubt in my mind about that.

    • Yale permalink
      September 1, 2009 3:55 pm

      You’re being a bit naïve by assuming because they didn’t gender test the rest of the winners automatically means it was done because of her appearance alone. One of the driving factors of causing the I.A.A.F. to begin investigating Caster was based on how much time she shaved off her race in the past year (especially given the 800 meter race is considered to be a short race by track and field standards).

      “Its easy to sit here and talk but everyone deserves credit for their success…” So are you saying an athlete who is doping and wins deserves credit for his/her success?

  4. Maria permalink
    August 30, 2009 4:12 am

    Yale,

    You state:

    – “An athlete’s competitive drive to win can often cause them to take erroneous measures to ensure victory…when your success comes in an unusual fashion that follows a similar pattern to previous cheaters; it raises the question of the legitimacy of your success”.

    I agree with you that many athletes do in fact take drastic measures to taste victory, i.e. performance enhancement drugs, etc., but in the case at hand nothing like that was done. If Caster did in fact want to take erroneous measures, she had many alternative options besides taking it all the way to competing as a woman if in fact she is a man. Nothing has yet been proven of her gender and it would be unfair to classify her as using erroneous measures or taking it even further by classifying her as a cheater.

    – “In the case of Caster, she went from an unknown athlete to a world champion in less than a year… When someone has such a rapid rise to athletic success, it is unusual and could potential be due to foul play (but clearly not always)”

    It is not extraordinary for someone to be successful overnight, there are various singers/musicians/artists, as well as sportsmen who do become champions in less than an ordinary fashion. As stated by HK above, Sri Lanka’s spin king Muttiah Muralitharan is a prime example. Despite being repeatedly subjected to suspension and testing, he has come out clean. Nevertheless, to this date he is often questioned every time he scores a victory.

    In terms of my example of runway models, yes there is a fairly thin line between men and women in Fashion, as both can make equally good models, however a mannish female competing for a Miss World pageant wouldn’t spurge gender testing, as is the case here. Similarly, on my argument over, “Why does one always have to justify their success?”, take the example of Indian model/actress Aishwarya Rai, nobody questioned her when she was competing in the Miss World pageant, however soon after she was crowned she was criticized for possibly going through the surgical tables prior to the competition, which to date has not been proven.

    Gender testing is not unfair, however it is unfair to subject a chosen few to such policies subjectively based on assumptions or past foul play trends. Concrete policies need to be in place that screen all candidates, both male and female prior to international tournaments to discard such claims later on.

    • Yale permalink
      September 1, 2009 3:58 pm

      1. I never meant to suggest she was cheating. My statements were trying to convey that gender/sex testing has a place within athletics to ensure males aren’t competing as females.

      2. I’m going to assume you’ve never been a competitive athlete on a national or international level. Comparing a singer’s/musician’s/artist’s overnight success to that of athlete is like comparing apples to oranges. Both singers/musicians/artists and athletes must put in a lot of dedication and practice to reach success. However, a singer’s/musician’s/artist’s success is often tied to public opinion of their work which is far easier to change overnight than someone’s physical ability to perform athletically.

      3. I’m not going to pretend to know the faintest thing about cricket, but based on HK’s comment it’s not clear how Sri Lanka’s Murli is an example of an overnight success in athletics.

      4. As to your counter of my counter regarding “Why does one always have to justify their success?” – yes, sometimes people who win are criticized and forced to justify their success, but people are not ALWAYS forced to justify their success. Your one example of an individual being forced to justify her success can be countered with all the other champions at the very same track and field event as Caster who weren’t asked to justify their success (of course unless it is standard practice to drug test every champion).

      5. “Gender testing is not unfair, however it is unfair to subject a chosen few to such policies subjectively based on assumptions or past foul play trends.” – If interpreted correctly trends don’t lead to subjective findings…they are usually considered objective outcomes that have the potential for false positives and false negatives.

      • Maria permalink
        September 3, 2009 5:55 am

        1. Point taken and I agree gender/sex testing does have a place in athletics, but I still believe it should be implemented homogeneously. If not across the male athletes, as they gain no competitive advantage in posing as a woman, then at least across all the female participants. There is no reason to solely test a chosen few; from winners to losers everyone should be pre-tested, otherwise discriminatory claims are bound to surface.

        2. My apologies, but I have been both a national athlete, in particular a cross-country runner, as well as an artist. From my experience in a national Inter-university dance competition in Canada, national Cross-country running in Dubai and a mere piano competition in high school, no success was simply tied to public recognition. I had to go through intense training in each of these fields, often for months before I even got to the qualifier’s round. Both apples and oranges are fruits, they need sunlight as much as they require water, likewise every talent requires some effort to grow.

        3. A good insight into Murali is present on Wikipedia or on his website, http://www.muralitharan.com/

        4. I take back the ALWAYS, but in my experience MOST victories don’t go un-criticized. From athletes to models and beyond, success often comes at a price.

        5. I won’t dwell into the objectivity or accuracy of trends, as we aren’t talking specifics here. Based on the particular statistics used by the trends, we can then determine how objective/un-objective they are.

      • Yale permalink
        September 3, 2009 12:16 pm

        Maria,

        1. It might be difficult to have timely homogenous testing of all athletes prior to competition for the combination of 1) gender/sex testing is currently a lengthy process and 2) countries might not always know who will be representing them far enough in advance/some athletes make breakout performance like Caster not leaving the time to test prior to competition. Why not run it something like the screening for substance abuse? When a country is fielding a team of athletes, they often get tested to ensure their ability to compete. But then the winners of the overall competition are still able to be subjected to verification testing.

        2. An apple and orange both take hard work and similar resources to reach their greatest taste, but an apple and orange don’t taste the same in the end (the reason why the statement is used when comparing two similar yet dissimilar objects/concepts). You’ve missed my point regarding the difference between a singer’s and athlete’s rise to success. Both a singer and athlete will have to dedicate significant time and effort to their endeavor, but at the end of the day a singer will not reach success unless public opinion of her/his work is favorable. Since public opinion can change rapidly, the singer can reasonably achieve overnight success (aka the bubblegum bands). An athlete on the other hand can be hated by the public, but if he/she is the fastest or most talented he/she will continue to be the champion. The only gage of success tied to public opinion of an athlete is how much money he/she will get in endorsements. What determines an athlete’s success competitively is her/his athletic ability, which often takes more time to alter than appealing to the public’s opinion.
        3. No response, but I still don’t see how he went from unknown to international stardom overnight like Caster.

        4. I believe our discussion has now become one of semantics, but “MOST” victories would still imply greater than 50%. However, few champions have been criticized in comparison to the number of champions. The perception of why you think most victories are criticized is similar to the misconception that people think flying is more unsafe than driving. The safety differences between driving and flying became a misconception because the news’ non-proportional coverage of flight versus car accidents.

        5. My argument was against your statement that said it’s unfair to utilize trends of past foul-play to determine who to test and not test. I’m saying the utilization of trends is an objective/fair means to determine who to test and not test to avoid the resource intensive action of testing the whole field of athletes.

  5. August 30, 2009 4:16 am

    I would also like to ask why substance testing is not conducted at the beginning of these major events? That would be a fair way to go about it. I think it is simply wrong to question people after they have achieved success. I agree that there have been numerous cases where athletes did turn out guilty but that’s not the case all the time. It just makes it unfair on those athletes who really deserve the credit for their success. So the way to solve it is to conduct testing prior to the race/events.

    • Yale permalink
      September 1, 2009 4:00 pm

      It might seem ideal to test everyone prior to competition, but it has significant drawbacks. Testing is considerably resource intensive, which is partially why testing the whole field of athletes isn’t done. Instead it’s much easier to selectively test only the top finishers. When an athlete is tested for drugs, it is done almost immediately after the race. Therefore you get the most clinically accurate picture of the athlete’s blood at the time of competition versus days or weeks prior to the race.

      • September 3, 2009 6:30 am

        I think you are getting into too much detail rather than looking at the big picture. It s easy to generalize but please remember that this is not a case of substance abuse where you just perform tests after the final run and you get the results in a short time. I wouldn’t even know where to start to really test if a person is male vs female. It will take weeks possibly months and can ruin the next 3-4 runs for her and others. From what you state above I agree that “Testing is considerably resource intensive, which is partially why testing the whole field of athletes isn’t done. Instead it’s much easier to selectively test only the top finishers” but THIS IS NOT A CASE OF SUBSTANCE ABUSE. YOU ARE QUESTIONING SOME ONE’s GENDER HERE. She probably looked as manly prior to the race and prior to the whole finals event than after it and that’s the point I’m trying to make! The proper way would be to question her prior to the race because unlike substance abuse this is something that can be clearly seen and distinguished. And as for selectively testing the top finishers, that’s where the problem starts or where the corruption starts. Its not about shaving race time because numerous individuals have shaved race time over a short or long range of time but never got tested. And if that was really IAAF’s intent then they did quite a bad job in publicizing it as such.

        According to me, the runner-up and 3rd finisher didnt look too feminine either because they were muscular on legs, thighs, a packed belly, short hair ??? those dont sound like feminine characteristics to me by any means and if they do to you then explain to me specifically how Caster differed from the rest?

  6. Michael Cassidy permalink
    September 3, 2009 6:33 am

    Thank you HK – You have said it all!

    • Yale permalink
      September 3, 2009 11:19 am

      HK,

      I realize we are discussing the testing of gender and not substance abuse. Hence, why my statement: “Testing is considerably resource intensive, which is partially why testing the whole field of athletes isn’t done. Instead it’s much easier to selectively test only the top finishers.” applies to both substance abuse cases and gender testing. You even said a gender test would “take weeks possibly months,” which to me implies it would be resource intensive. However, maybe the I.A.A.F. would have tested her prior to the race had she not come onto the international scene so rapidly. The I.A.A.F. said previously that her rapid entry onto the international racing circuit prevented them from addressing any issues prior to the competition. They felt it was fairer to allow her to race and sort out the issues afterward than prevent her from competing until the issues were resolved…seems fair to me.

      Your statement: “The proper way would be to question her prior to the race because unlike substance abuse this is something that can be clearly seen and distinguished.” You seem to suggest a gender test can merely be done through seeing, but I would argue it’s far more complicated and isn’t something that can be “clearly seen and distinguished.”

      Since when is short hair considered to be non-feminine? Have you viewed a picture of the medal ceremony for the women’s 800 meter race (I didn’t realize shoulder length hair is considered to be short hair)? If you had, you might have noticed the 2nd and 3rd place finishers both had hair that was shoulder length or longer. I’m not saying hair length should be any mark for defining what is and isn’t feminine, but the use of it in your rational isn’t suitable because your statement of comparing hair lengths isn’t true. Caster differs from the rest of the field physically by having the combination of facial hair equivalent to an 18 year old boy, a much deeper voice, significantly broader shoulders than her competitors, and an all around appearance of significantly greater muscle mass. But then again, her physical appearance isn’t the only reason the I.A.A.F. is requesting a gender test.

      • Maria permalink
        September 3, 2009 6:00 pm

        Yale,

        1. Yes, I agree that there is a time constraint in context, why not make it a pre-mandate that could be issued to all participating countries, where such gender testing takes places initially at a national level preventing any lag prior to the International events. Whether it is screening or testing, as long as every candidate is equally under light prior to the competition, there would be no issue of discrimination.

        2. I did not agree with you on artists/athletes etc. being comparable to apples and oranges, I was simply providing a rationale on how certain similarities are shared between apples and oranges as well. Personally I don’t think there’s much difference between a professional dancer/artist vs. an athlete, as both require immense training before competing on any level, therefore I would not compare them as dissimilar objects/concepts or in further analogies. Yes artists might be a little more dependent on public recognition than athletes, nevertheless they do put in a lot of initial efforts of their own to reach to that level. I think you’ve missed my point here as well. The discussion is not public vs. private or whether sports/arts/entertainment are similar or different, but rather the credit that Caster rightly deserves for reaching where she has today. Whether it happened in a short span or longer, my point is…it is possible, if it weren’t she wouldn’t be where she is and until that is proven erroneous, we have an example right in front of us. Obviously, notwithstanding other examples from sports, like cricket, etc.

        3. I assume like you said, you are not too familiar about cricket, therefore I will not dwell into explaining further why the example used fits in the argument, but the phrase ‘overnight’ is not literally meant so, I assume you understand that.

        4. I would not necessarily bring in percentages in this argument, MOST means most minus any %s. However, to answer your question, ‘few champions’ might have been criticized in comparison to the number of champions, but my argument is not over that, but rather success vs. criticism. Had you presented your statement as ‘few champions’ over the entire basket of ‘champions’, I might have agreed. Similarly, I will not dwell into clarifying my perceptions or as you state ‘misconceptions’, perceptions are opinions, like yours and mine. Thankfully, I do not think driving is any safer than flying, so I guess that makes your analogy slightly invalid. An opinion can not be invalidated, facts can.

        5. Agree with you on the resource intensive nature of gender/sex testing, however trends can’t be applied subjectively, they need to be applied objectively and implemented as laws for universal adoption and acceptance.

  7. September 4, 2009 2:14 am

    To me… there is something known as “Good Practice” and something known as “Bad Practice” and in this case I would consider IAAF ‘s reaction and publicity of this as a bad practice because nothing has been proven as yet. Good practice would be to keep shut and do whatever you need to do in the background and publicize this male vs female jargon only when something has been proven.

  8. Lisa permalink
    September 5, 2009 2:55 am

    I thought the whole situation was out of control. Caster ran her race. you most definitely can’t take that away from her.. What is wrong with u people. I enjoyed watching her run and look forward to the next race. Will she be asked again to degrade herself when she exceeds her time?

  9. Michael Cassidy permalink
    September 5, 2009 3:02 am

    For non-South Africans – some news from the local magazine scene that will flesh out this debate a bit more. There is a pulp mag for the masses here called “You” magazine. Nothing like the French Elle of course, and pretty tacky by anyones standards. This week Caster herself graces the cover. Her hair has been treated with extensions, her face made up to the nines, etc. I full-on WOW Look At Me Now makeover. Go take a look yourself at http://www.you.co.za.

  10. Maria permalink
    September 6, 2009 3:10 am

    Thank you Lisa – my point specifically, a winner is always a winner, unless proven otherwise.

    Michael – She looks stunning! Thanks for the share.

  11. September 7, 2009 11:23 pm

    For non-South Africans – some news from the local magazine scene that will flesh out this debate a bit more. There is a pulp mag for the masses here called "You" magazine. Nothing like the French Elle of course, and pretty tacky by anyones standards. This week Caster herself graces the cover. Her hair has been treated with extensions, her face made up to the nines, etc. I full-on WOW Look At Me Now makeover. Go take a look yourself at http://www.you.co.za….

  12. Emily permalink*
    September 8, 2009 11:41 am

    Wow. While I have not been following this whole discussion, I find that Caster going on the front cover of that magazine, while this may have not been the sole purpose for publicity, seems to have to “prove herself” as a woman by doing a makeover with make-up, hair extensions, etc.

    Ugh.

  13. Carrie H permalink
    September 9, 2009 3:56 am

    It’s surprising to see so many people argue here and reach a conclusion that was already stated in the article “Why does a woman need to expose to prove her heterosexuality?” _ In one way it seems to me like what happened with the WOW magazine is what the author predicted already.

    However, from WOW magazine to her win, let’s for once be a little positive in appreciating her, rather than again criticizing her actions.

  14. Michael Cassidy permalink
    September 9, 2009 5:08 am

    I recognize that despite my academic background and role as a psychotherapist who works with a lot of gender issues, I am relating here more in the mode of foreign information provider and my position is more of an emotional one than one argued in analytic or academic style. So then just another local update from South Africa about Caster’s situation and the testing context for those who might be interested … as I feel that while the facts do not change the actual issues we need to debate about gender, they make this person more real and human to us. The latest news is (1) Caster’s coach has resigned as he did not disclose to her that the post-race test was for gender. Caster thought it was just a standard dope test. Her trainer has resigned because he said he couldn’t live with his deceit for the rest of his life and so he ‘outed’ himself so to speak. So she was duped and their was no transparency of motive. This lack of transparency is a clear indication that the testers knew full well they were skating on thin ground. (2) Local Members of the South African Parliament want an apology from the International Association of Athletics Federation President Lamine Diack. He is said to want to come to this country to make the apology. Members of Parliament want him to apologize to the nation in Parliament itself. My thinking is that whatever the outcome, the testing results would be nul and void – surely as she did not consent. Furthermore, there is a tendency to treat apology as a reason to foreclose debate and discomfort – I hope that this does not happen in this instance. I am left with my frequent conclusion – men often conspire together, women often survive individual persecution alone !

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