The Caster Semenya Question.


The androgynous looking South African runner Caster Semenya has been ordered to prove her gender by the International Association of Athletics Federation:

The verification requires a physical medical evaluation, and includes reports from a gynecologist, endocrinologist, psychologist, an internal medicine specialist and an expert on gender.

“So we’re talking about reports that are very long, very time consuming,” Davies said.

South Africa team manager Phiwe Mlangeni-Tsholetsane would not confirm or deny that Semenya was having a gender test, but said “there was no cheating on our part.”

“We entered Caster as a woman and we want to keep it that way,” Mlangeni-Tsholetsane said. “Our conscience is clear in terms of Caster. We have no reservations at all about that.”

Bloggers at The Science of Sport suggest that this was a foreseeable problem which should have been addressed by Athletics South Africa* much earlier:

The fact of the matter is that these allegations are not new. They have followed Semenya for a few years. Therefore, there was ample time to verify sex (again, a difficult process) and clear the way for her to compete. There is no doubt however, that the question was always going to be raised in Berlin, that people would ask and scrutinize, and so good management and coaching would have seen this resolved BEFORE the Championships even began. Because it was not, we are sadly seeing that Semenya will be the loser in what might well become an ugly story. There is surely nothing more offensive than the question of a woman’s sex – even a doping accusation does not come close.

What I’m curious about — and haven’t seen an answer to — is why these accusations have been following Semenya. Is it her appearance? She is muscular, but no more so than, say, a Marion Jones. The difference may be that Jones can be considered traditionally ‘pretty,’ while Semenya has much more masculine features. Or is the problem her performance? Semenya has greatly increased her personal best in the 800m, by seven seconds in the last year.

Thoughts? Do any of you follow track and field closely enough to have some insight?

*Which, by the way, is running a story titled: “Caster Semenya’s Fairytale Continues” on their home page.

UPDATE. Anna at Jezebel delves into the whys (hint: ‘she looka like a man’ seems to be the problem here. Also, she doesn’t like boys that way. And, as we all know, gender is determined by one’s sexual orientation.):

It’s true that if gender testing is something that athletes only have to undergo if other people raise suspicions — and if those suspicions are only raised when an athlete is “too good” to be female — then the process is hardly fair. The tests were once required of all female Olympians, but the process was discontinued because it was too invasive. This points to the great difficulty of determining “gender” in a lab in the first place — but if officials are going to try it, don’t they need a better basis than whether someone “looks like a man?” And what happens if Semenya is found to have an intersex condition? Is it fair to ban all intersex athletes from competition? A woman with, say, more testosterone in her body might have a competitive advantage, but women produce different amounts of testosterone naturally, and women with long legs have an advantage too. All this points, as we mentioned yesterday, to the need for a clear definition of gender in sports and clear standards for determining it — both of which are difficult because gender itself is much more fluid than the concept of “gender testing” would imply.


24 thoughts on “The Caster Semenya Question.

  1. universeexpanding August 19, 2009 at 3:01 pm Reply

    I was looking at some other news items about this, and I’m thinking that her features do have a part to play. The stories are playing into it with the pics they are using too imo – in pics where her face is relaxed she looks more plausibly feminine, but much of the pictures are of her grimacing or baring her teeth. Definitely doesn’t help.

    • shani-o August 19, 2009 at 3:06 pm Reply

      Yeah, I noticed that! I was looking for a pic where her face was neutral, but a number of stories had shots of her with a grimace — kind of aggressive looking. Which, I think, is kind of a cheap shot.

  2. richard August 19, 2009 at 4:56 pm Reply

    I agree that she does look rather masculine, in fact her facial bone structure and shape reminds me of some of the eastern european atheletes from the late ’70s and early 80’s, who have now been discredited because of the evidence of steroid use.
    I do not understand why it would take so long to verify her gender, surely checking her chromazones for XX or XY will not take months, as has been reported, and the result of such a test will be definitive and unargueable?
    I think that the question has arisen because of both her appearance and the dramatic increase in form over the last year.

    • G.D. August 19, 2009 at 5:12 pm Reply

      I think that the question has arisen because of both her appearance and the dramatic increase in form over the last year.

      If she is indeed male, why would her gender only have boosted her performance over the last year?

    • universeexpanding August 19, 2009 at 6:22 pm Reply

      When reading the story I was trying to figure out why this is specifically an issue of questionable gender as opposed to doping. With a seven second improvement that’s what I would suspect as opposed to it being a case of a man being passed off as a woman. It should also be noted though that she’s just 18 – maybe the performance improvement over the course of the year is because she’s still growing and developing?

  3. ladyfresh August 19, 2009 at 8:37 pm Reply

    Why are they asking? I’m not seeing details on this. Is this something normally tested for?

    I’m finding this offensive and my sexist alarm bells are going off.

    but reading this I must clarify this – it’s not an issue of male vs female, but of “entirely female”, since she may possess secondary male characteristics as a result of some condition, reported as hermaphroditism it feels a bit clearer…but just a bit though

    since when do athletic competitions disallow for someone not ‘entirely’ male or female

    • quadmoniker August 20, 2009 at 1:40 am Reply

      A long time:

      That was only after chromosomal testing was available too. There were cases before too when some people doubted women were women but sophisticated testing wasn’t available.

      • ladyfresh August 20, 2009 at 8:35 am Reply

        thank you!

  4. e11even August 19, 2009 at 9:53 pm Reply

    This is the picture that gave me the puppy dog stare
    (confused, head cocked to the side)

    Re: Richard “..surely checking her chromazones for XX or XY will not take months..”
    True but they may be looking for signs of an XXY varient which may take more consideration. It has been *rumored* that actress Jamie Lee Curtis has this… that she may be a HERMAPHRODITE born as a genetic female but with gonads instead of ovaries.
    – the XY woman is no different from an XX female. If anything, she’s more likely to match the Western male standards of a beautiful woman, with long legs, well-developed breasts and clear skin. She could have a height advantage in sports or may become a fashion model, an occupation that supposedly holds a number of XY women, or a movie actress. Indeed, there are at least two well-known American movie stars who are XY women, according to researchers in sex differences, although neither of the actresses wishes her condition to be made public.

    Re: universeexpanding
    I agree with the growth spurt angle.

    Re: ladyfresh
    Because I follow sports, mostly Olympic type competitions, I remember these past runners:
    In 1988, Spain’s top woman hurdler – Maria Patino – was barred from competing on Spain’s Olympic team because she had failed the “sex test.

    A man who ran as woman

    Examples of lifestyle change:

    XXY (2007)

    • ladyfresh August 20, 2009 at 8:52 am Reply

      fascinating thanks!

      one of the commentators(maryka) at The Science of Sport made a good argument about the fairness of this type of testing

      i think this is where i was headed in my argument

      “It’s a bit of a slippery slope in any case, when you think of the fact that top athletes in general have superior genetics that give them an “advantage” over their competitors, whether that’s Michael Phelps’ insanely big feet and double-jointed ankles, or Lance Armstrong’s long femur size. That’s part of what makes them top athletes, correct? If an internal medicine specialist needs to examine Caster Semenya in order to decide whether she’s eligible to compete as a woman or not, maybe we need to look at whether Andy Roddick’s flexible spine and hence extremely fast serve isn’t indeed some kind of unfair genetic advantage — maybe he should only be allowed to compete against similarly flexibly-backed athletes? Yes, it’s a ridiculous example to make my point: when it comes to what genetic advantages an athlete was born with, and how those advantages are classified, how do you decide how much is too much? I’m not talking about Oscar Pistorius here of course.”

  5. uglyblackjohn August 19, 2009 at 10:55 pm Reply

    Didn’t the IOC already rule in favor of transgender athletes back in 2004?

    • quadmoniker August 20, 2009 at 1:46 am Reply

      yeah, if they meet certain requirements.

  6. Perfume August 20, 2009 at 6:21 am Reply

    I am South African and first of all I want to CONGRATULATE her on behalf of every South African for winning the gold medal for us.

    She is not the only female athlete to have male features, have a look at Pamela Jelimo’s (Kenya) and you tell me whether she is male/female, why was nothing brought up then about her features, look at Maria Mutola (Mozambique) and there are many more others as well, how come Caster becomes the hype that the world is suddenly focused on her features.

    Caster is 18 has anyone ever thought the psychological damage these allegations might do to this young girl, the world is now focused on her gender. Well they have made her very famous overnight. And I hope and pray that the tests prove every accuser of hers wrong.

    To Caster, we will not be surprised that suddenly sponsors will be pounding at your door to offer you a sponsorship, like your Mom and Grandmother have said that they know you are a girl.

    WELL DONE CASTER, WE ARE PROUD OF YOU!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    From a fellow South African

  7. Samia August 20, 2009 at 9:20 am Reply

    What if she’s trans? Exactly whose business is this? This is just disturbing to me, though it’s not like I know too much about any non-MMA sports lol. Just a note– “hermaphrodite” is actually a word that much of the intersex community is seeking to avoid, as it is commonly used to pathologize intersex individuals. Plus it’s not really that accurate a scientific term when we’re talking about humans as opposed to other animals.

    Thanks for the post!

  8. idyllicmollusk August 20, 2009 at 12:11 pm Reply

    I’d just like to pop in to mention that intersex people use the term ‘intersex’ and not really ‘hermaphrodite’ since that term has been used as a pejorative for so long.

    Also, a chromosomal test would not be conclusive, because as mentioned above there are women who have XY chromosomes but were born appearing female, and there are also people with XXY and just X. (sometimes indicated XO) There is also something called Androgen Insensitivity Syndrom that would cause a fetus with XY chromosomes to develop as outwardly female.

    There are of course people who are trans, whose chromosomes would not match their gender either.

  9. Jay Smooth August 20, 2009 at 3:31 pm Reply

    I don’t have anything to add to the comments above, but I want to give props to Caster for her post-race implementation of the Tony Yayo dance.

  10. K. August 20, 2009 at 5:23 pm Reply

    I also wonder why they questioned her gender vs. accusing her of steroid use?

  11. Carole Ford August 20, 2009 at 6:27 pm Reply

    It’s already in the past. Just let her have the medal!

  12. Chris August 21, 2009 at 12:15 pm Reply

    I feel bad for her, she can’t help her condition and she probably has been mocked all her life. At least she can be finally do something that she can be proud of.

  13. jason August 21, 2009 at 1:48 pm Reply

    Leave the poor girl alone.

  14. There is no binary. « PostBourgie August 26, 2009 at 3:51 pm Reply

    […] As if we needed another reason to think Kai Wright is pretty much amazing. Wright talks about what Caster Semenya has lost, no matter what the outcome of her sex test is, and why the myth of sex being a binary is […]

  15. kwame August 27, 2009 at 9:57 pm Reply

    Great post and comments!

    To my thinking some of the wording is off in this controversy. The debate is not about Caster’s gender but rather her biological sex. Gender is how societies make cultural sense of the (sometimes problematic) biological sex binary. The problem as I understand it is that Caster does not fit neatly in the sex binary–this is a biological sex test, not a gender test. Put differently, gender is cultural and biological sex is “scientific.” But as this case clearly demonstrates “science” is not wholly objective. The difference between gender and sex is easily lost in these debates but I think it is a useful distinction to make. Of course I might have the distinction confused myself. k

  16. Caster Semenya’s Answer. « PostBourgie September 8, 2009 at 11:28 pm Reply

    […] Semenya, South African runner we’ve talked about here and here, got her nails painted and donned a sequined tunic in SA glossy You magazine. According to […]

  17. sparkling September 22, 2009 at 3:24 am Reply

    i don’t see any reason why this has to be an issue.Caster is a Girl, so should leave her alone.Please give the girl some air to breath……..

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