By Anonymous (not verified) on November 11, 2009

South African runner Caster Semenya should be on top of the world. Instead she is on a suicide watch. She set a world record in the 800 meters and became a national hero. Now her life is in tatters. For that, we can thank Athletics South Africa (the South African athletics federation), and the utterly backward way international track and field attempts to understand gender.

Semenya is eighteen years old. She was raised in a village with 80 percent unemployment that only recently got electricity. But she set about at a young age to prove that she was in that miniscule top 1 percent who could outrun the destitute poverty of her existence. There were boys who would tease her about her athletic skill, as if it meant she wasn’t quite a “girl.” There were the girls who wouldn’t play with her. But she just kept running and causing jaws to hit the floor with her remarkable skill.

Semenya advanced through the ranks. But as with all women who push the boundaries of sport, the whispers began. Just as they did with Martina, Babe Didrikson, and Billie Jean, they said that she must have a competitive advantage by virtue of not being “entirely a woman.”

Before the international track and field championships in Berlin, the team doctor for Athletics South Africa, Harold Adams, told the federation’s president, Leonard Chuene, that Semenya could be flagged as “gender variant” and dragged through an ugly scandal. Chuene quashed the report, and, in a thirst for gold, let her run. Semenya never knew the deluge that was to come. First, the Australians complained that Semenya was “not quite a woman.” South Africans rallied around her, calling the complaints racist. Semenya then teased out her hair and plastered her face with makeup to demonstrate just how all woman she was.

But then the Victorians who run track and field subjected her to a series of “gender tests” that included invasive examinations of the eighteen-year-old by a gynecologist, an endocrinologist, and a psychologist. Why a psychologist was needed to help determine her gender is still a mystery.

Then the humiliation: Her test results were leaked showing that she has internal testes and no womb or ovaries. We need to recognize that one out of every 1,666 births is classified as “intersex” (what the media still calls “hermaphrodite,” a word that belongs in the dustbin of history). So she may have been born that way. Or she may have AIS, Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome, a disorder caused by a gene mutation that affects as many as one out of every 20,000 births. Whatever Semenya’s biological composition, it should be a private issue between her and her doctor. Instead it’s been offered for the ugliest kind of public consumption.

It would be comforting to some, perhaps, if we all could fall into neat categories of man or woman. But gender variance is a very real part of the human condition. In addition to people who may be intersex or have AIS, there are more and more women who have “naturally” elevated testosterone levels. Some theorize that this is a result of changes in our environment or processed foods. Others believe that this has always been and we are just more scientifically savvy. But one thing is certain: The idea that not having ovaries or elevated testosterone makes you a naturally better runner, or that it was somehow responsible for Semenya’s success, is absolutely preposterous. Training, coaching, and, of course, having access to training and coaching matter a hell of a lot more.

And if Semenya is in fact running “as God made her,” then it shouldn’t matter if she is maxing out her every biological advantage. No one asked if Michael Phelps has an “unfair” advantage because of his mammoth flipper-like feet. No one asked if he was part fish. If anything, he is praised for being, as Olympic commentators swooned, “built to swim!” Why isn’t Semenya being seen as “built to run”?

She should be preparing for the Olympics. Instead, she is preparing for survival. Shame on all of us. Caster Semenya should be allowed to run, and gender testing should be absolutely abolished.

Dave Zirin is the author of “A People’s History of Sports in the United States.”

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Editor's note: This contribution by the late journalist I.F. Stone first appeared in our January 1975 magazine.

On November 20 every year for the last fifteen years, transgender people gather for vigil ceremonies to acknowledge...

Yesterday the U.S. Senate narrowly defeated a bill that would approve construction on the Keystone XL pipeline.

By Wendell Berry

Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front

Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more 
of everything ready made. Be afraid 
to know your neighbors and to die.
And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery 
any more. Your mind will be punched in a card 
and shut away in a little drawer.
When they want you to buy something 
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know. 
So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute. Love the Lord. 
Love the world. Work for nothing. 
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it. 
Denounce the government and embrace 
the flag. Hope to live in that free 
republic for which it stands. 
Give your approval to all you cannot
understand. Praise ignorance, for what man 
has not encountered he has not destroyed.
Ask the questions that have no answers. 
Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.


Say that the leaves are harvested 
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.
Put your faith in the two inches of humus 
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.
Listen to carrion—put your ear
close, and hear the faint chattering
of the songs that are to come. 
Expect the end of the world. Laugh. 
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts. 
So long as women do not go cheap 
for power, please women more than men.
Ask yourself: Will this satisfy 
a woman satisfied to bear a child?
Will this disturb the sleep 
of a woman near to giving birth? 
Go with your love to the fields.
Lie easy in the shade. Rest your head 
in her lap. Swear allegiance 
to what is nighest your thoughts.
As soon as the generals and the politicos 
can predict the motions of your mind, 
lose it. Leave it as a sign 
to mark the false trail, the way 
you didn’t go. Be like the fox 
who makes more tracks than necessary, 
some in the wrong direction.
Practice resurrection.

Wendell Berry is a poet, farmer, and environmentalist in Kentucky. This poem, first published in 1973, is reprinted by permission of the author and appears in his “New Collected Poems” (Counterpoint).

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