Eighteen year old South African runner Caster Semenya bolted to the world’s attention when she shattered records on the track. At the African Junior Championships in Mauritius she posted the fastest 800-meter run of the year at the time with a 1:56:72. When she competed in her first senior championship at the world track and field championships in Berlin just a few days ago, she clocked another record for the year of 1:55.45 and finished two seconds ahead of the defending world champion.
The wide margin of victory against elite runners of the world added to the speculation that Ms. Semenya could be a male. Officials from the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), track and field’s governing body for the world, will be conducting a gender testing procedure that includes an endocrinologist, a gynecologist, a psychologist, and both internal and external physical examinations. The IAAF director of communications, Nick Davies, says that the organization does not believe Ms. Semenya has been intentionally cheating but is the victim of a medical condition known as Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome (AIS). AIS is a condition in which a person who is genetically male but is unaffected by male sex hormones known as androgens. Some people with AIS will have a totally female body on the outside, but will lack ovaries and a uterus while others may demonstrate partial AIS and will develop more muscle mass and have more facial hair than usual.
To say that the rest of the track runners are praying for confirmation of the AIS gender malady in the test results is an understatement. Ms. Semenya literally blows away the competition with the ability to literally walk away from the rest of the pack at will. With respect to her opponents, Ms. Semenya does a very good impersonation of Jamaican sprinter and Olympic gold medalist Usain Bolt, who outruns his male opponents just as easily with his own record shredding performances. As a man Mr. Bolt is immune from accusations of gender confusion. No one is going to accuse him of running like a girl, not unless it’s the bionic woman.
And speaking of the bionic woman, if Ms. Semenya looked like Lindsey Wagner, who played the transistors enhanced Jaime Sommers, questions of her gender would not have been an issue. But because she does not fall into the typical standards of beauty of keen facial features and long wavy hair, it’s easy to dismiss her as nothing more than a freak of nature undeserving of her success. If she looked more like the Florence Griffith-Joyner and ran with a long flowing ponytail and sporting the latest in Cover Girl products or was a perky bundle of muscle like Dominique Dawes then we would simply call her the winner and stand in line to swoon all over her.
Instead, we hear rumors that she might be more man than woman and suddenly point to her anatomy and ask, what gives? Does she really have too much muscle mass to be a woman? Some of her competitors look just as muscular. Maybe they should have their gender checked as well. Does she really have more hair than other women? I know for a fact that nobody questioned Brooke Shields’ gender when she walked onto the scene with her bushy eyebrows. But that won’t stop these fleet footed kettles from calling Ms. Semenya black. Italian competitor Elisa Piccione said that these kinds of people should not be allowed to run with normal women. I guess by normal she doesn’t mean slower.
Instead of being celebrated as the latest great athlete, Ms. Semenya is going to be systematically taken apart and studied all the way down to her genetic level. Her twenty third chromosome will be checked for the proper pairing and she’ll be put under a variety of technologically advanced microscopes so some of us can examine her every defect. Some of the test that she’ll be subjected to will be arbitrary and based on somebody’s opinion of what it means to be male or female. Seriously, what can a psychologist contribute to the understanding of this runner’s gender? The only reason she’s going in for psychological testing is that she did her best to win a race.
If this woman is going through a battery of tests simply because she won a race then maybe it should become standard procedure for all women who win a race to have their gender checked and their psyche scrutinized for their every Freudian flaw. Why stop there? Let’s avoid embarrassing the winners and the rest of the runners altogether by checking their femininity when they sign up before they run. But to wait until women like Caster Semenya are in the middle of experiencing their highest high, after they have put their best effort forward with astonishing results, after they have played by all the rules, while they’re steep in the middle of overwhelming emotions, to single them out for further testing simply because they won and don’t fit our expectations of how a woman should appear and act is some serious loser like behavior.