Caster Semenya affair: Lies from the top

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The South African government has asked the UN to conduct an investigation to restore the honour of Caster Semenya after an Australian newspaper claimed that the young athlete was a hermaphrodite. Furthermore, a new controversy has erupted in South Africa following an article that appeared in a local newspaper The Mail & Guardian claiming that the president of the Federation of South African athletics knew, based on tests performed early August ahead of the world championships in Berlin, that Caster Semenya’s sex could become an issue. Forced to resign, Leonard Chuene, president of the ASA, has sought to defend himself by claiming that he only wanted to protect the athlete. The results of femininity tests ordered by the international athletics federation (IAAF) yet to be made public.

The South African athletics federation had doubts over Caster Semenya’s sexual identity before the world championship in August in Berlin. The revelation was made over the weekend in Pretoria, the South African capital. Leonard Chuene, president of the Federation of South African athletics (ASA), has acknowledged having lied when he claimed that Caster Semenya’s sexual identity had never been questioned before the Berlin games. According to him, femininity tests were performed on the young woman from August 7 following the SAA’s doctor’s recommendation. That is, twelve days before she won gold in Germany.

According to Leonard Chuene, the results of the earlier examinations were not known when the team departed for Berlin. But the South African newspaper The Mail & Guardian does not share his viewpoint. Last Friday, the newspaper published an email exchange between Leonard Chuene and Harold Adams, the SAA doctor, showing that results from an earlier test were well known beforehand. But those results were not “good” for Caster Semenya, meaning that they did not clear earlier doubts concerning the athlete’s femininity. Harold Adams recommended that Caster Semenya should be made to remain in Sotuh Africa and not be authorised to paricipate in the games. But the ASA president who was, undoubtedly, more interested in grabbing medals ignored this advice.

My own child

Informed of this new development, politicians in South Africa have duly rebuked Leonard Chuene. For the South African Minister of Sport, the ASA President is responsible for the humiliation suffered by Caster Semenya after her victory. “Mr Chuene has not only lied to us as the ministry, but to the whole country, and this is not acceptable… We are convinced that the perpetual denial of knowledge of these tests has fuelled the continuous violation of Ms Semenya’s rights and dignity, by foreign and some local media. We are of the view that his lies were to Ms Semenya’s detriment,” said deputy sports minister Gert Oosthuizen. Donald Lee spokesman of the Democratic Alliance opposition party has, meanwhile, asked Leonard Chuene to resign.

But the president of the ASA wont budge. “Resigning is tantamount to running away… I will face this head on, I won’t jump ship,” he said. He however apologized for the trouble his decision had caused. “I would like to apologise for the way I handled the manner but I did so to protect her. I would have done that even with my own child… I now realise that it was an error of judgement and I would like to apologise unconditionally. As president of ASA I will not, however, apologise for allowing caster Semenya to run or for protecting her privacy… We fully agree that we could have handled this matter differently but something like this has never happened in this country before and we at ASA believe we acted in the best interests of the athlete”.

Complaint at UN

This new controversy emerged at the same time when South Africa had decided to take the Semenya controversy before the United Nations. Friday, September 11th, the Morning Herald, an Australian daily had claimed knowledge of the gender test results commissioned by the International Athletics Federation (IAAF). According to the paper, the outcome of the test indicate that Caster Semenya is a hermaphrodite. The Morning Herald stated that the young athlete “has no ovaries”, but rather “internal testes” and that she produces higher levels of “testosterone” in relation to other women.

Angered by these indiscretions against the IAAF’s silence, the South African Minister of Women and Children, Noluthando Mayende-Sibiya, decided to launch a complaint at the UN. Last week, she demanded the UN for an investigation. “There was “blatant disregard” for Semenya’s “human dignity.”

Femininity tests unreliable

Results of the IAAF investigation to determine the true sexual identity of the athlete will however not be known until the group’s decision taken at an executive board meeting that took place on Monday are made public.

Femininity tests were adopted in 1966 at the European Athletics Championships when European countries suspected that female athletes from the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe were, in fact, men. The first test dates back to the Mexico games in 1968. In practice there are several protocols to help determine the femininity of an athlete. There are tests that consist of collecting oral samples and subjecting them to chromosomal tests. But although XX chromosomes are characteristic of girls there are cases when women may carry XXX, X0, XXY, etc.. Men usually carry XY chromosomes, but like these women, some men sometimes end up with more X’s than Y’s. In the case of women, this phenomenon may or may not give them a masculine appearance. There are also tests based on DNA analysis, in which doctors seek the Y chromosome instead. But many geneticists say that none of these tests is absolutely reliable. Currently, sex determination involves gynecologists, endocrinologists, psychological and internists (internal organs specialists).

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