Caster Semenya, a South African athlete who won gold in the 800m at the Athletics World Championships last night, has been asked to undergo a sex test following her sudden emergence on the international scene after winning the South African Junior Championships on July 31, when she ran faster than anyone in the world this year. Having passed a drugs test, she must now undertake the sex test in order to retain her gold medal, despite assurances from the South African athletics federation – and her mother – that she is female.
It may be that she does have some kind of intersex condition that she is unaware of, but that the current speculation is to a large extent based on her appearance is a sad reflection of how deeply we buy into gender stereotypes and the oppositional model of two genders, as evidenced by the hurtful comments from two of the other athletes in last night’s final:
“These kind of people should not run with us,” Elisa Cusma of Italy, who finished sixth, said in a postrace interview with Italian journalists. “For me, she’s not a woman. She’s a man.”
Mariya Savinova, a Russian who finished fifth, told Russian journalists that she did not believe Semenya would be able to pass a test. “Just look at her,” Savinova said.
There also seems to be a lack of recognition of the difference between sex and gender in the reporting of and speculation surrounding the case; I’ve seen the terms used interchangeably all over the place, with little respect for Semenya’s self-identified gender.
I don’t have the relevant expertise or knowledge to get into a discussion of how sex can be determined for the purposes of sporting events, or indeed what the implications of the complicated nature of sex should be on such competitions, but as a human being, Semenya deserves so much more than the hurtful attitudes displayed by other athletes and the International Association of Athletics Federation’s insensitive handling of the situation. As Michael Johnson pointed out on the BBC last night, athletes accused of doping are kept safe from international judgement until the results come through; the same should go for sex testing. It seems unlikely that Semenya would find herself in quite this situation if her appearance were perceived as more “feminine”.