The curious gender case of South Africa’s Caster Semenya, could spell the end of what a large part of society considers as set standards and redefine gender in the twenty-first century, that is, if reports of her testosterone levels, three times higher than those normally expected in a female, are to be believed. This natural characteristic would have aided her to win the 800 meter title in Berlin in August, at the World Athletics Championships in 1:55.45, i.e., 2.5 seconds ahead of a record set by Kenya’s 2007 champion, Janeth Jepkosgei. It behooves the IAAF to introduce and recognize a third gender category, in order for the talented 18 year old athlete as well as the numerous other women who will certaintly be found with high testosterone levels to compete in future competitions.
As questions remain over Semanya’s future in women’s sports, South Africa sports committee and the IAAF will meet in Monaco on 20-21 November, to determine whether Miss Semanya’s condition gives her a competitive advantage. Asked what would happen if she were barred from future competitions, South Africa’s sports minister, Reverend Makhenkesi StofileStofile said: “We (would) go to the highest levels in contesting such a decision. I think it would be totally unfair and totally unjust. Neither Caster nor her family deserves this humiliation. None of them have done anything wrong. And we appeal that they be left alone. We have referred the matter to our lawyers to see how best her rights and interests can be protected. Caster is a woman, she remains our heroine. We must protect her.”
Gender testing is a complicated issue. On the whole, there are four main elements to consider if questions are raised: anatomy, physiology, chromosomal makeup and genetic composition. But like Gordon Farquhar, BBC blogger puts it, “For sports governing bodies like the International Olympic Committee (IOC) or the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), where fair competition on the basis of gender is a pre-requisite, this has been a real headache. How and who should decide in these cases whether the person be considered a woman or a man?”
The 18-year-old 800m world champion has had medical tests following doubts about whether she is really female. Indeed she has been brought up as a girl and lives as a woman, but biomedical tests may show that she has both male and female sex characteristics. Media reports in Australia have claimed a source had revealed that Semenya’s test results showed her to have some or all of the primary sex characteristics of both men and women. The IAAF on their part, have not denied these allegations, but rather called for caution on how the information is handled. In fact, IAAF secretary general Pierre Weiss was quoted as saying that “it is clear that she is a woman but maybe not 100%. We have to see if she has an advantage from her possibly being between two sexes compared to the others.”
Not an isolated case
But while Semenya has come under the spotlight because of her apparent masculine outlook, certainly acquired from mingling with boys as a football loving girl, other women with the same biological make-up but with more feminine outlook, due to more feminine association, may be more fortunate. Semenya’s case is in no way isolated. However, although Maria Mutola of Mozambique and Palema Jelimo Kenya were suspected of having elevated male hormone levels, there was no media frenzy concerning their athletic excellence. Former number one tennis seed, Martina Navrátilová, albeit her wins and masculine build was never subjected to such ridicule. Jackie Joyner, a multiple athletics medal winner, who hid behind inches thick make-up, was never questioned. Or was the political power their country, the United States, represented a natural deterrent factor to the media who have found a soft spot in Semenya? Santhi Soundarajan, an Indian 800 metre runner, was also less fortunate when she was deprived of a silver medal she won during the Asian Games in Doha in 2006 after she failed her femininity test. The fact that Santhi won silver and not gold could mean that having male hormones does not give an automatic advantage. One has to work hard to win gold in an international competition. Semenya was not just a winner. She broke a record. The young woman had worked hard to achieve her incontestable victory.
The curiosity here is if she is judged ineligible to compete as a woman, she would also be ineligible to compete as a man; and if she refuses to consent to treatment for her natural hormone excessiveness, she must be allowed to compete as an intersex athlete as the IAAF, based on moral obligation, cannot really ban a naturally fit human being from competing if that person is not consuming performance enhancement drugs. And Caster Semenya is not using any male hormone drug. The IAAF must make provision for her to compete, and that may be by introducing the third gender category for athletes like Semanya. Perhaps this case may open a can of worms on the gender categorization of our societies and the provisions we make for equality as humans.
Because of Semanya, gender may no longer be divided into two categories; male and female, but a third gender category known as intersex; introduced and considered in our ever-changing society. Maybe it is time for society to understand that things are not always, exactly one or the other, but that a large gray area exists between either ends. Those in this gray area have a right, just like those in the black or white area, to live without barriers. Meanwhile, if the IAAF is only seeking to have females who are “100% women” as Pierre Weiss put it and impose restrictions on Caster Semenya because of her testosterone levels, their obligation to test every single female athlete will reveal some shockers. All that glitters, afterall, is not gold. Had Caster Semenya adopted her new look before the Berlin Games, none of this would have happened. The IAAF needs to look beyond make-up and long hair and subject every woman to those feminity tests. In fact, the IAAF may be getting ready to close shop on “feminine” events!