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Sex, Sport and One Slippery Slope

Meet Caster Semenya (center in photo), more than likely you may not have heard of her, but after her record setting performance recently at the World Athletic Championships in Berlin, her name is all over the papers—and not exactly because she gave a good run. According to this article:

“About three weeks ago, the international federation asked South African track and field authorities to conduct the verification test. Semenya had burst onto the scene by posting a world-leading time of 1:56.72 at the African junior championships in Maruitius.

Her dramatic improvement in times, muscular build and deep voice sparked speculation about her gender. Ideally, any dispute surrounding an athlete is dealt with before a major competition. But Semenya’s stunning rise from unknown teenage runner to the favorite in the 800 happened almost overnight.”

Verification Test? The ASA (Athletics South Africa) is just now conducting a test to see if Caster is genetically male or female after all of this time and in the middle of her racing period? Since gender is not just determined by examining external organs, why the sudden rush to prove or disprove Caster’s validity to race aside women—maybe because she is blazing past her international colleagues and some countries are secretly crying foul before having their runners suffer defeat? Since the test results (they have already tested her) have yet to be concluded, she is being allowed to run but whether she will be allowed to keep her titles/times is still up in the air.

No doubt that Caster looks male – and she isn’t the first female athlete to look less than womanly. How someone looks says much about who they think they are, but if Caster’s test results do reveal that she is female—then what does it say about the rest of the world? One thought is that Caster may be a hermaphrodite, and raised as a woman. Or she, like many female athletes produce a higher amount of testosterone, resulting in a narrow frame, small/flat breasts, etc. This can be a natural occurrence or a result of serious training. If this turns out to be true, that Semenya is genetically a man, then what is next? Obviously, she is choosing to live as a woman, and thus must believe that she is female. Human curiosity has opened up a deep Pandora’s box no matter what the results are. What of transgendered athletes who have legally changed their sexual orientation? Should they be allowed to compete as well? Because sport is rooted in rules, how do these straight lines mesh with the very curvy world of sexuality?

Caster has decided to remain silent about the issue, and rightfully so. Keep in mind, she is only 18 years old, and this week should be the happiest of her life. Regardless of everything, the ASA, and the world, owes Caster Semenya one huge apology for allowing a private and personal matter to become an issue of international sport.

Last 5 posts by Shannon Washington