Gold and Sex: The morphological contradictions of Caster Semenya

Reading time 5 min.

The drama involving South African Caster Semenya could be titled: “Gold and sex.” Her becoming the world champion in the 800 metre category, Wednesday evening in Berlin, was all but a joyous moment. She is to undergo a femininity test, because, according to the International Federation of Athletics, her fellow competitors and some of her compatriots, her appearance is questionable.

They are all talking about about sex. Caster Semenya’ sex. Thus, the gold medal won by Caster Semenya in the 800-metre final Wednesday evening in Berlin, at the world championships, bears the curse of incertitude. More so because she finished the race at an incredible 1’55”45 ‘, setting a new world record. Shortly after her victory, the International Association of Athletics Federation (IAAF) announced that the 18 year-old South African native of Polokwane (Limpopo province) would undergo femininity tests. In fact, the organisation is merely continuing a process that had already begun. Caster Semenya underwent several tests due to her remarkable performances during the heats and semi-finals. An IAAF Committee met Tuesday evening to decide on her predicament. According to Pierre Weiss, the secretary general of the IAAF, “there is no evidence to prove she is not a woman, it is probably only visual”. The federation has given the benefit of the doubt to the winner whilst announcing that investigations are under way in South Africa. Meanwhile Nick Davies, spokesman for the IAAF, has indicated that femininity tests are “extremely complex” and “difficult”.

A nation and a family behind Semenya

Results of the tests will be available in several weeks. However, the new world champion’s sex is a non-issue among her family members, South African sports authorities as well as top South African officials. Suspicions are rife over a conspiracy fomented by the Australian press, after they announced that there were suspicions surrounding the athlete’s femininity. ”I think the Australians are bitter because South Africa beat them at rugby and cricket. It’s not the first time, as far as sport is concerned, that the Australian media have tried to put South Africa in a bad light… Remember how the Australian media made such a big furore about the fact that South Africa would not be ready for the 2010 Soccer World Cup and that FIFA should have a Plan B since it might be necessary to move the tournament to another country… As it turned out, the story was absolute rubbish.” Said Molatelo Malehopo, executive head of Athletics South Africa (ASA). Meeting the press on the eve of the finals, he stressed on Caster Semenya’s sex, insisting that she would not have been made part of the team had she not been a woman. “We are absolutely certain”, he said. Chuene Leonard, president of the ASA also had his word to say on the issue Thursday. “I will continue to defend the girl (…).I am not going to let that girl be humiliated in the manner that she was humiliated (…). Her crime was to be born the way she is born.”

The African National Congress (ANC) Thursday urged all South Africans to “rally behind Caster Semenya, their “golden girl”. Said the spokesman for ANC, Brian Sokutu in a statement released on Thursday, ” Caster is not the only woman athlete with a masculine build and the International Association of Athletics Federation should know better”. In another statement released Thursday, the Young Communist League says the issue “smacks of racism of the highest order”. According to them, “It represents a mentality of conforming feminine outlook within the white race, and that as long as it does not fall within this race or starve and paint itself in order to look like the white race it therefore is not feminine.” Desppite the controversy Maputhi Sekgala, the athlete’s grandmother remains indifferent. The controversy “doesn’t bother me that much because I know she’s a woman – I raised her myself,” the Mail and Guardian newspaper cited the Times. “She is my little girl. … I wish they would leave my daughter alone,” the young athelete’s father told the press. Her family, however, confirmed that Caster’s physical appearance had raised eyebrows as a child compounded by the fact that she enjoyed playing football.

South African athlete’s did not like her

Yet Caster Semenya must, since her entrance into the world of athletics, “prove” her femininity. Her masculine appearance has cast a shadow of doubt in the minds of her fellow competitors. “I think she is clearly a man,” Elisa Cusma, an Italian athelete, told Rai TV after the 800 m final. The rumour has been nourished since the 9th African Junior Championships, which ended early August in Mauritius. “She was tested in South Africa before taking part in the championships and it seemed she did not have many friends within the South African delegation,” remembers Tapesar Cavin, a Mauritian journalist covering the world championships for Canal France International (CFI). “After interviewing her, I can say that her build is quite impressive. Her voice is also quite masculine. But this is not enough to determine her sex.”

800 m, the masculine woman’s discipline

800 metres is a discipline in which suspicions over the sex of athletes are mostly common. The Indian, Santhi Soundarajan was deprived of a silver medal she won during the Asian Games in Doha in 2006. She failed her femininity test. This led her, later on, to a suicide attempt before taking up a coaching career. Maria Mutola of Mozambique and Palema Jelimo Kenya also came under the suspicious light. “It’s because they looked like men,” says Kenyan journalist Bernard Otieno, a member of CFI team in Berlin. “However, Maria Mutola and Palema Jelimo were never made to undergo femininity tests. Jelimo is actually married.”

Caster Semenya, meanwhile, has revived an IAAF practice that has been disused since 1992, due to its lack of reliability. In the 60s, Eastern European countries presented transsexuals and sometimes hermaphrodites at competitions forcing the federation to depend on saliva tests. But according to Dr. Ross Tucker, a sports specialist questioned by the Mail & Guardian, this practice in addition to the examination of the genitals is not sufficient to define the sex of a person. This type of testing was dropped in the 80s in favour of chromosomal examinations. Females have two X chromosomes (XX) while males have one X chromosome and one Y chromosome (XY). But in certain cases, some women end up with a single X chromosome (X) and the man with one more (XXY). Thus confirming the mysteries of nature and morphological contradictions of Caster Semenya.

South africa  Read latest news and features from South africa : business, politics, culture, life & style, entertainment and sports
Support Follow Afrik-News on Google News