Posted on Wednesday, August 26th, 2009 at 5:04 pm and is filed under Archive | 0

And so to the vexed question of Caster Semenya who, with each crass pronouncement by Athletics South Africa chief Leonard Chuene, is beginning to look more and more like a political pawn rather than a young woman who may need counselling, if not other sorts of therapy.

2009 World Outdoor Championships

Everyone knows that there are effeminate men and masculine women who, as a by-the-by, are not necessarily homosexual. The effeminate men probably have less testosterone than the majority whereas the masculine women have more. All women have testosterone, incidentally, usually much less than men.

In theory, a surfeit of testosterone acts as a natural performance enhancer for some women (though not all), permitting them to train harder. Because that is what (extra) male hormones do for women athletes, they help them train harder, and recover quicker, and thus get faster, higher, stronger, to quote an old motto. These hormones help men in the same way, but usually not with such startling results.

It has been reported this week that Semenya has three times the level of testosterone of the average women. That she is able to employ that extra testosterone seems without question, given the improvements that she has made since being eliminated in the heats of the World Junior championships 13 months ago, in a time of 2min 11.98sec. Three months later, she improved to win the World Youth title with 2.04.23, but no one was prepared for her winning the African Junior title recently in 1.56.72, and then taking world gold in Berlin last week in 1.55.45.

2009 World Outdoor Championships

I doubt I am the only one who feels that Semenya could have run that world final some four or five seconds faster, had she been so inclined. Which is to say, somewhat faster than the world record of Jarmila Kratochvilova of then Czechoslovakia who, I daresay, without fear of contradiction, everyone feels must have been using drugs to achieve that time of 1.53.28 back in 1983.

The only thing new in the debate about Semenya’s gender is her name. The problem in athletics goes back at least to the 1930s, and Stanislawa Walesiewiscz, who competed in the USA as Stella Walsh. I don’t know whether debate about Walsh’s sexuality led her to opt for her native Poland, rather than her adopted USA, but she won the Olympic women’s 100 metres title in Los Angeles 1932.

When Walsh finished second to Helen Stephens of the USA in the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin, Polish journalists accused Stephens of being a man. German officials examined Stephens and refuted the claim. Over 40 years later, Walsh, by now a US citizen was killed during an attempted robbery. An autopsy revealed that Walsh had both male and female chromosomes, and tiny male sexual organs, but no female ones.

At those same 1936 ‘Hitler’ Olympics, Hermann Ratjen, competing as Dora came fourth in the women’s high jump. Dorothy Tyler of Britain, who won silver, recalled Ratjen a couple of years ago. “I knew she was a man. You could tell by the voice and the build. But ‘she’ was far from the only athlete. You could tell because they would always go into the toilet to get changed. We’d go and stand on the seat of the next-door cubicle or look under the door to see if we could catch them.” When Ratjen later broke Tyler’s world record, the Briton wrote to the record officials, ‘She’s not a woman, she’s a man’. “They did some research and found ‘her’ serving as a waiter…. so I got my world record back”.

My own first ‘live’ encounter with this fraught subject came in the early 1980s, when a debate similar to that surrounding Semenya was being aired about Jarmila Kratochvilova, who is still the 800 metres world record holder, with 1.53.28. In those days, there was an IAAF sex-test, which had progressed from the crude method of the visual examination, to a mouth swab to determine chromosomal gender.

Incidentally the XX designation for women and XY for men is far too simplistic. There are many areas in between, including conditions known as Hermaphroditism or Mosaicism, Gynandromorphism, Klinefelter’s Syndrome and Heterochromia, all of which are manifestations of both male and female chromosomes in the cells of an organism, including humans. These are now linked under the term intersexualism.

My apologies if I have misunderstood any of this, and I’m sure I’m not the only one astonished to find that there are as many as one in a thousand births worldwide featuring some sort of intersexual condition. I would venture that such births in first world countries are (almost always) treated immediately through surgery or hormone therapy, while those in poorer societies can remain either unrecognised or untreated.


Anyway, back to 1983, when there was a distasteful situation involving Kratochvilova at the World Cup in London. The British 800 metres representative Shireen Bailey was found (through an oversight) not to have a gender certificate, while Krato did. The tabloid press went to town on this, since Bailey was a conventionally beautiful woman, and Krato, to put it gently, was not. Yet there has never been any doubt about Kratochvilova’s gender, although she was, doubtless due to the drugs, heavily masculinised. And she was far from being the only one, I saw Flo-Jo metamorphose from being one of the most beautiful women to step on a track, to becoming a steroid monster. Ditto a prominent British athlete of that era, who I shall not name, in order to avoid the tedious process of a potential law suit.

The dangers of potential intersex athletes are exemplified by the case of Santhi Soundararajan, an Indian runner who won silver in the women’s 800 metres (again!) at the Asian Games in Doha 2006. She was subsequently disqualified after failing a gender test, demanded by an opposing team. A villager from a poor family, she was vilified when the news broke, and allegedly tried to commit suicide, though has now apparently set up a rural athletes’ centre. When news of her humiliation became public, Canadian cyclist Kristen Worley, who had had sex reassignment surgery, commented, “It should never have been handled in such a gross manner, amounting to public humiliation because of their ignorance of her condition. The Olympic movement has been dealing with intersex people since the 1930s. You’d think they would have got the hang of it by now.”

And there is the nub of this problem.

2009 World Outdoor Championships

Semenya has been competing at international level for over a year, ample time for both her national and the international federation to sort out any problems arising from what is clearly a problem of gender identification.

The way in which ASA President, Leonard Chuene has leapt into the fray with accusations of racism and other, frankly inane comments, suggests another agenda.

Here’s one example of Chuene running at the mouth faster that Usain Bolt on the track. It is taken from the consistently excellent (South African) The Science of Sport website. “The responsibility of the federation (ASA) is to train children and take them to the championships. When a child is born, the parents don’t take them for tests to find out if it is a boy or a girl, they simply look. The family will bring us a child and say they have given us a girl, and we accept that. We then prepare her, which we did, and she went on to win gold, so we’ve done our job. You tell me more what we could have done?”

On the subject of first accusation, IAAF President Lamine Diack, a Senegalese, pointed out drily that as a black African himself, he could hardly be accused of racism, then regretted sincerely that the affair had become public, when an IAAF request to ASA for gender verification was leaked. Chuene toned down his comments, then shifted his accusations to leaks from ‘home,’ the subtext of this being, I presume, (white) opponents of the ruling ANC, of which Chuene is a prominent member.

I am no apologist for the IAAF, but I understand from off-the-record discussions that other intersex cases, which Semenya’s potentially is, have been resolved discreetly in the past, even the recent past, with the cooperation of the athletes’ federation and the IAAF. And without the athlete having to endure public scrutiny.

Would that this case have been!

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