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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.”