As an Outsports.com writer who has been covering gender testing in sports, I'm tracking the controversy over South African teen track star Caster Semenya and whether she should compete as a woman. The complaint against tall, muscular Semenya has been blown sky-high by her astounding performance last week in the 800-meter run at the 2009 IAAF world championships in Berlin. She won by many yards in an event that's usually won by a few feet.
Indeed, I wonder how deeply the investigation of Semenya is being skewed by sports politics. This isn't the first time in recent years that gender complaints have been lodged against women athletes of color from smaller countries. Mozambique's great runner Maria Mutola, also a powerful muscular type, was hounded by gender gossip for years, though she passed the test again and again.
So here's an early report on how the story is shaping up:
The International Association of Athletics Federations is the sports body that governs inter-country competition in track and field. And the first thing IAAF did was to violate its own rules, which call for gender investigations to be "confidential." News of the complaint was leaked before the race, and could have interfered with Semenya's performance. But the tough-minded teen stood up to the pressure, and turned in a run for the ages.
The plaintiffs don't have the integrity to identify themselves, but they may include at least one of her white European competitors, who may be coming from mingled hate about gender, sexual orientation and also possibly race.
Elisa Cusma of Italy, who finished the race in sixth place, told the press: "These kind of people should not run with us. For me, she's not a woman. She's a man."
Mariya Savinova of Russia, who finished fifth, added, "Just look at her."
In short, the real issues around 18-year-old Semenya may go way beyond her chromosomes. On top of her masculine appearance and deep voice, Semenya refuses to go for the femme styles that many European and American women runners parade on the track, in order to avoid the age-old conservative criticism that "sport masculinizes women." She doesn't go for the girly halter top and bikini bottom, or the bits of jewelry, or painted nails, or hairstyles like ponytails. Instead, Semenya sticks to corn rows, tank top and spandex shorts.
To put it another way: nobody is saying the L word out loud, but this part of the attack on Semenya apparently comes from that toxic old dictim that says, "If you don't try to look feminine, we'll conclude that you're a lesbian" -- one that women athletes have been battling for the last century and a half.
What the Investigation Is Really About
"Investigating" an athlete's gender is an elaborate process today, not just a quickie swab test for DNA. So it may be weeks before the IAAF releases all their findings.
A little background is important:
By 1999 the International Olympic Committee had finally abandoned the old policy of across-the-board testing of all women competitors in the big events -- a policy that had been detested by most athletes ever since it was started in 1968. But the IAAF and IOC still can and do investigate any individual cases that are brought to their attention. In fact, quite a bit of gender-testing was done on women at the Beijing Olympics, and I was surprised that more of an issue wasn't made of this.
The IAAF was actually the first major sports body to be supportive of athletes' anger against the gender testing policy. They stopped testing in 1992, seven years before the International Olympic Committee did. So the IAAF is aware that "gender" is not a simple issue of having either XX or XY chromosomes. They now have an elaborate set of rules on the range of what they will allow in the women's division, and what they won't allow, where it comes to chromosomal and congenital variations in women athletes.
So if Semenya turns out to be a case of complete androgen insensitivity syndrome (CAIS), she can retain her gold medal and go on competing. Under the old rules, she would have been stripped of her medal and sent home in distrace.
The question is -- will it be determined that Semenya falls into the area that is allowed?
I find it bizarre -- and shocking -- that part of the investigation now includes a psychiatric exam. Since when is psychiatry germane to the question of physically qualifying to compete? Supposedly Semenya will be asked how she sees herself. This after 31 years during which some athletes who saw themselves as women were declared "not women" and stripped of their medals under the old rules? I can hardly wait to see what the shrinks have to say, and if their opinion influences the IAAF decision.
Semenya had been on scene in South African girls' track for some years already. Her appearance, and her tomboy childhood (refusal to wear dresses, etc.), were already well-known. It appears that the issue of her gender was quietly looked at before they sent her out to international competition. SA track and field authorities may have been confident that she fit within the present wider range of "female" that is allowed by IAAF policy.
If It Looks Like a Girl...
If Semenya were willing to suck up to all the pressures to "look feminine," she probably would have fewer political problems.
Ever since the early 1900s, the sports establishment has shown that it will overlook a deep voice and a masculine appearance in a woman athlete, if she surrounds herself with feminine fripperies. Back in the 1930s, Babe Didrikson, who started as an Olympic gold medalist in track and field, was notorious for her boyish look and deeper voice. But The Babe figured out that she could deflect criticism by going heavy on the girly frills. When she switched to golf, her fashionable skirts and blouses got her through decades of pro tournaments, despite her ability to hit drives as far as Sammy Snead.
By the 1960s, it was Erika Schinegger, world champion women's downhill skier, who pulled off the same magic trick. Erika was notorious for her masculine frame, deep voice and 5 o'clock shadow, but she knocked herself out on the pretty-dresses-and-lipstick front. So Austria was more than happy to have her compete...till she flunked the first round of gender testing in 1968. It was then discovered that the skier's true gender had been misidentified at birth, owing to some physical anomalies.
If the plaintiffs against Semenya are athletes, they know very well that she had to be observed peeing in a cup for the drug test in Berlin. So her external genitalia have already been scrutinized, and must have passed.
Much is also being made of the fact that she is flat-chested. But anybody who views the IAAF footage of the race on YouTube, complete with closeups of the runners, can see that several of them are just as flat-chested as Semenya. For copyright reasons, we can't link to this footage from Bilerico, but if you're curious, go direct to YouTube and search under "Caster Semanya IAAF" and it will come up.
The South African government is outraged over the noisy investigation, and the violation of confidentiality. According to the Sapa-DPA news agency:
"South Africa plans to lodge a complaint with the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights over the gender test ordered on the country's middle-distance runner Caster Semenya, officials said Friday. The Portfolio Committee on Sport and Recreation soon said the commissioner needed to investigate the "gross and severe undermining of rights and privacy" by the ruling athletics body IAAF.....'The humiliation of Semenya was a sign of sexist action by IAAF as it undermined the achievements of women," sports committee chairman Butana Komphela said in a statement.' The statement comes in the wake of a storm of outrage in South Africa which has rallied behind the 18-year-old who came almost out of nowhere to take the gold."
Why Aren't Male Athletes Tested?
Today the new gender-testing policy is rationalized by an alleged need to eliminate "unfair advantage" in the women's division. By that, the IAAF means that they want to eliminate individuals who are more muscular and stronger than most women.
It's odd to hear all this blather about "unfair advantage" when no political effort on earth will ever eliminate all the variables in athletic competition. That level playing field that everybody mentions is only found in the realm of theory. Sports are going to tolerate the presence of athletes who have all kinds of built-in edge -- better-than-usual eyesight, for example, or an inherited ability to tolerate lactic-acid buildup.
So policy on the "unfair advantage" of more muscle on certain women is just double-talk for an attempt to punish any perceived "masculinity" in women.
Incidentally, no gender testing was ever done on male athletes. Sports authorities protest that men aren't tested because there is no need -- no issue of "unfair advantage" among male athletes.
But that isn't exactly true. Some men are born as a type of triploid, meaning they have an extra Y chromosome. XYY men tend to be taller. This could be an advantage in some sports. Not in basketball, because basketball teams select for tall to start with. But in tennis, for instance, a tall man has an edge in the serve. Tennis great Bill Tilden was very tall, which was one of the factors that made his "cannonball serve" so devastating. Some studies suggest that XYY men are also more aggressive. This could give them an edge in any sport.
Likewise, some men are born XXYs, meaning that they develop in the opposite direction -- a lighter, less-heavily-muscled frame than most men. Not every male sport is won by the sheer creaking muscular strength that most cultures equate with "masculinity!" The lighter build could give the XXY man an advantage in sports that favor that type of physique, like marathon running. The build that dominates in sprinting, which is an explosive anaerobic muscular exercise, is actually a disadvantage in the 26.2-mile marathon, where your circulatory system has to feed oxygen to as little muscle as possible, in order to maintain you in an aerobic activity for an hour or so.
But hell will freeze over before the secrets of male athletes are ever exposed by gender testing.
Bottom line: the Caster Semenya story is now a major international incident, and will probably get more complicated before it's over. Tomorrow the runner arrives home in Johannesburg...to a hero's welcome at the airport, with the President of South Africa and the entire African National Congress there to greet her.
I'll have more to say after the IAAF hands down their decision.
For more historical background, Bilerico readers can find my Outsports article "The Rise and Fall of Gender Testing".