Patricia Nell Warren

How Legitimate is the "Gender Complaint" Against Caster Semenya?

Filed By Patricia Nell Warren | August 24, 2009 6:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Entertainment, Transgender & Intersex
Tags: Babe Didrikson, Caster Semenya, Erika Schinegger, IAAF, IAAF world championships, IOC, Maria Mutola, South Africa, track and field

As an Outsports.com writer who has been covering gender testing in sports, I'm tracking the controversy over South African teen track star article-0-061D19E9000005DC-924_306x423.jpgCaster 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".

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In reading your article, Patricia, it struck me that the characteristics you highlight are precisely those that are shared by the vast majority of transgender and transsexual women whose deaths we mark every TDOR.

The intersections of race, and certainly class, with sexual characteristics not usually associated with the identified sex of the woman attacked, and how this affects her perceived gender, reflect only the ugliest aspects of human nature.

Your description of Semenya's secondary sexual characteristics, so clear in the photo, attracts the rigidity of thinking that so often affects all of us who not only do not reflect the expectations of the mainstream, but also of those who would enlist us in their political campaigns.

I always wonder why self-identification/self-recognition are so universally dangerous that simply to declare oneself, and then proceed to excellence, is so threatening.

I suppose I have answered myself--unless we limit ourselves to imposed expectations, we proceed to excellence at our own risk.

Great article Patricia.

This lends credence to your earlier posts on gender association and the XXY/XYY scenario.

When will we ever get past the questions of a top female athlete sexuality...it doesn't matter.

Sexuality doesn't matter;gender does.

I think that for this young lady it is a perfect storm in that she doesn't look feminine but many female athletes don't, but as you point out she doesn't act frilly and girly and she is not from a European nation. I don't just see in this a strict racial issue and I believe that were she competing for a European nation or the USA and just a dark she would not have hid this problem and if she were to be tested she would have been far better treated as far as secrecy goes.
As for unfair advantage. I have long noticed that a very disproportionate percentage of higher ranking and successful martial artists have dyslexia. There is a visual processing advantage to it when it comes to fighting or fencing or archery and sharpshooting. I always liked having that advantage but it might make up for my disadvantage of heart issues. You are correct that there is never going to be a perfectly level field for play since we each have different make ups. Look at Phelps (every chance we get right) but his body is a bit unusual in proportion and so he has a perfect body for swimming.

*.... as dark....
remember the part about dyslexia? spell checker doesn't catch everything.

Great article! I too am shocked at how big of a deal this has become. It is an interesting issue, and one that I'm personally quite interested in, as a biological woman who competes athletically, but who has never quite fit entirely into the "female" gender box.

One note: Caster Semenya does not have CAIS (complete androgen insensitivity syndrome). This is obvious just looking at her! CAIS results in what you could call an "extremely feminine" phenotype. Several actresses and supermodels have been rumored to have CAIS, and they are all thin, curvy, with well-developed breasts and secondary feminine characteristics. Semenya clearly has testosterone receptors, or else she would not be able to build that kind of muscle tone!

All in all, I think this media fuss is unnecessary, and the comments from her competitors sound like sour grapes. Hopefully this all blows over, she can keep her medal, and continue to compete. She's a role model to so many young athletes. Major kudos to her for keeping her cool through this firestorm.

I was merely giving CAIS as an example, since this is one of the situations that IAAF would allow. But it could be a possibility in her case. Muscle isn't just inborn -- it can be developed through many years of working out. Also, a woman runner with CAIS wouldn't necessarily have well-developed breasts. Look at the rest of the runners in that race, who are all presumably XX women. Several of them are as flat-chested as Semenya.

Regan DuCasse | August 24, 2009 9:02 PM

First of all, Ms. Semenya has the sleek, beautiful musculature that reminds me of jaguars and gazelles.
Siraya Bonaly (figure skater) and the Williams sister are proportionately taller and MUCH more muscular than their typical counterparts in their respective sports.

The Williams sisters are over six feet tall and might have set a new precedent in the height of the average tennis champ.
But excellence is excellence. Watching the slow twitch action of all those muscle systems in motion is ballet, a symphony of skill.

Remember how Jesse Owens tore up the Nazi (master race) competition at another notorious competition in Berlin?

Ms. Semenya's competition would do well to reserve their complaints regarding her appearance, it looks like so much what a sore also ran would say.

Regan, I agree with you 110 percent! Especially Bonaly -- I was a big fan of hers while she was still competing. The figure-skating world really did her wrong.

And check out pictures of Maria Mutola!

The thing is, Semenya both looks, sounds AND acts like a male. If she was raised female, she was immediately unreceptive to it since her father has stated that "Caster refused [dresses]... she has never had a skirt, only trousers." Even her headmaster said he thought she was a guy until the 11th grade, i.e., a year or two ago. We have absolutely zero evidence of any traditionally female tendencies or behaviors from infancy on, and presumably it must have taken a strongly male orientation to immediately reject an attempted female upbringing in a conservative, rural area.

So it sounds like Semenya may actually identify as male. We have not received any evidence to the contrary. Her male physical characteristics are obvious to anyone. If a person identifies as male, and has a male physique, and, as is the case with Semenya, actually competed against boys in sport growing up, it is very difficult for me to see how she should be permitted to compete against women, even without knowing the results of this gender test.

You can get some clarity on this by reading the IAAF policy statement. Semenya may "act and talk" like a man, but many "tomboy" women do that, in fact they may even play sports with boys when they're young (I did!). But they continue to legally identify as women. And her mental and emotional attitudes about herself are not the main grounds on which the IAAF decision is being made.

The key issue is what comes up on the chromosome text, and the PHYSICAL expression of whatever her genetic nature is, and how that impacts on her female co-competitors -- whether it gives her an unfair advantage in terms of strength, speed, etc.

Oops...typo. Chromosome test, not text.

Thanks for the thoughtful response. As for "tomboys," while they may display certain typically male tendencies, the ones I knew in school never had any doubt about their gender identity. They self-identified as female, and looked female, while adopting certain male behaviors and styles of dress. Often these tomboyish qualities were fleeting and gone by puberty.

While this is definitely not an area of expertise for me, I was under the impression that self-identification as male (for someone physically female) is very different than "tomboyishness" or homosexuality. It's a clue to an underlying chromosomal or biological reality.

Consider: if Semenya had an indentifiably female physique, yet still exhibited all the behaviors attributed to her by her parents and friends, we'd consider it just one piece of evidence and would need to wait for the tests (that could be evidence of tomboyishness). On the other hand, if she had the same body, but had grown up acting "feminine," always identifying as a woman, we'd also wait for the tests (that would be similar to the Schinegger example you mentioned). But here we have a male physique, with someone acting "male," and possibly identifying as male, and as a post-pubertal adult. I just don't see what substantial ambiguity there is here that a test could resolve.

Brynn Craffey Brynn Craffey | August 24, 2009 11:39 PM

Excellent article, Patricia!!! And I agree with most of it.

Not necessarily this, however: 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.

While sexism, racism, homophobia, Euro-centrism, and ignorance around gender figure prominently in this case, I believe an argument could be made for some sort of categorization of competitors in selected sports. Categorization not based on gender or necessarily sex--and absolutely not on nation or race! But possibly on the amount of testosterone naturally occurring in a person's system, and their body's response to it.

Having been born female and living now as a man through the direct result of testosterone, I'm very aware of my inhanced muscular strength--especially upper body, but also elsewhere. And I believe my stamina has improved, although that might just be fitness.

I absolutely object to the way the testing has been imposed in this case, and especially the way the mainstream media has been presenting the story. But I'm not sure if there is no need for some sort of divisions in some cases.

To muddy the issue, what about Lance Armstrong? Is he on testosterone-replacement therapy, due to his bout with testicular cancer? If so, has that given him a competitive edge? The contrast in the way the two cases have been presented in the media--I've never seen Armstrong's masculinity questioned--illustrates yet again how sex and gender, and men and women, do not compete on an even playing field in professional (or other) sports.

You make a good point about a category of competition based on testosterone. But this new category would be very, very complicated to organize and govern in the sports world.

Besides, there is way more to successful competition than just testosterone. There is the ability of the body to use stored glycogen for energy -- and when glycogen is exhausted, the ability to directly break down and burn fat cells. Which is why women can beat men one-on-one in certain extreme sports, like ultramarathons in swimming and running -- because we women have the biochemical edge on the energy-breakdown front.

Lance Armstrong may have a momentary testosterone edge in his sport. But there is also what an athlete does with himself or herself mentally and emotionally and spiritually, during training and in competition. Long-distance cycling is one of those where the head work counts heavily.

Testosterone doesn't count for much in events like equestrian and others where women and men compete directly.

Also, it has been told in sports articles about Lance Armstrong is that he has a heart that is 1.5 times bigger than the heart of other people his size. If you can pump more blood through your system, then you have the stamina that is needed to be a cyclist. In his case, testosterone may have nothing to do with it. It sure didn't before the cancer.

Brynn Craffey Brynn Craffey | August 25, 2009 11:32 AM

Patricia, I totally agree that it's complicated and that factors other than testosterone need to be considered, and that it needs to be specific to certain sports.

I guess my point is, the basic separation of competitors used to be by sex/gender, then other factors like weight, age, ability, etc. I think if we're going to categorize, we should use the most advanced science at our disposal to do so, and eliminate the sexism, social stigma, and prejudice so evident in this case. Moreover, at this time, I believe in some cases if we did that, we might have males and females competing against each other in sports where they don't at this time.

Robin Bauer | August 25, 2009 4:26 AM

there is one point missing in this discussion: it might well be that she is an intersexed woman with AGS, which would mean that she has more testosterone than the average woman, and the German doctors investigating are exaclty trying to prove that as it seems...(Iam from germany and saw it on TV).

my position is: so what? it is a human rights issue if "intersexed" individuals do not get to compete in the gender most appropriate to them. it's a fluid boundary from "female" to "intersex" to "male" biologically and in terms of testosterone. so she should be allowed in anyways in my view!

Robin Bauer | August 25, 2009 4:26 AM

there is one point missing in this discussion: it might well be that she is an intersexed woman with AGS, which would mean that she has more testosterone than the average woman, and the German doctors investigating are exaclty trying to prove that as it seems...(Iam from germany and saw it on TV).

my position is: so what? it is a human rights issue if "intersexed" individuals do not get to compete in the gender most appropriate to them. it's a fluid boundary from "female" to "intersex" to "male" biologically and in terms of testosterone. so she should be allowed in anyways in my view!

One has to wonder if eventually there shouldn't be competition in non-contact sports such as boxing and wrestling without regard to gender? Women's records in track and field of today are better than the men's records of just a couple of decades ago. I think it's time to get past a binary concept of gender and see that it's actually a continuum. That would go a long way to avoiding these controversies.

Boxing a non-contact sport? Many people would vigorously disagree with you, including the Women's Sports Foundation, who make an interesting suggestion about weight classes in boxing.

They propose that a weight class should be created where women and men of equal weight (i.e. equal body mass and arm length for hitting power) can box each other without men having "unfair advantage."

See this link http://www.womenssportsfoundation.org/Content/Articles/Issues/Participation/C/Contact-Sports--Male-Versus-Female-Competition-in-Boxing-The-Foundation-Position.aspx

Women's records in track and field of today are better than the men's records of just a couple of decades ago.

That's actually not true. The very first guy to run the 800 meter in 1912 ran a 1:52, still more than a second faster than the women's record time, set in 1983 by an Eastern European woman suspected of doping. In fact, most of the top women's times in that race are by East German women from the late 70s and 80s. The times coverged sharply until about 1980, at which point they plateaued for both men and women.

Ditto the 200 meter -- the first guy ever to run it ran a 20.6, better than FloJo's all time best of 21.3. Even the mile, which has been timed since the 1800s, Walter George ran a 4:12 in 1886, which still has not been bested by a female runner. It goes without saying, too, that these early records were only technically world records, as generally only white American and British men were competing in them.

All that said, the differences in performance between men and women runners appear to be due to more than just a temporal lag. If track went to a single "open" category, any female runners would be eliminated in early qualifiers, which might end up leading to them abandoning the sport entirely. This would not be to anyone's benefit.

Daniel, your last paragraph isn't exactly true. As the distances increase, the gap between men's and women's performance narrows. Where it goes even-steven is in ultra-distance, the 100-mile races, where some women can handily compete one on one with men...and beat them.

What Shakay was trying to say, I think, is that women's world record progression in running events has improved faster and more dramatically than men's -- possibly because women had been held back for so long. They were coming from farther behind and were very motivated to catch up. This has been especially true in long-distance running, when women were finally allowed to do those distances in competition.

In the 10,000 meter, from 1972 on, the men's times dropped by one minute plus -- from 27:28:35 in 1972 to 26:17:53 in 2005. Whereas the women didn't start pushing into the 10,000m till after 1980. But they dropped their performance by nearly three minutes -- from 32:17 in 1981 to 29:31.78 in 1993. Since then, both women's and men's 10,000m times haven't gone much of anywhere, so both genders have hit a wall there.

But in the 26.2 mile marathon, women have chopped NEARLY AN HOUR off the world times in 38 years. When I was running in the first unofficial women's marathons in 1969, women dreamed of breaking 3 hours. In 1971, the year that the AAU first officially scored women in the U.S., Beth Bonner finally broke 3 hours with a 2:55:22. Now it's down to Paula Radcliffe's 2:15:25 in 2003. That's pretty phenomenal.

Whereas men had already broken 3 hours in the first Olympic marathon in 1896. But it took them over a century to lower their time to the current record, which is 2:03:59, set in 2008.

Robert Ganshorn Robert Ganshorn | August 25, 2009 9:52 AM

Semenya has just been welcomed back to South Africa as a hero covered on BBC. It is important to remember that different races certainly have natural advantages in sports (Note: few Africans in in finals on swim teams) Africans own all manner of running titles. Their physicality is as one who runs and it made them safe from enemies and best of hunters. Our human migration around the planet molded us in a variety of ways.

For a European girl to complain about "running against a man" is to overlook the obvious. In sports many women have interruptions to their natural cycles. Even in ballet female athletes both have reduced breast size and interruptions in their monthly cycle. And yes, these dancers are athletes.

Appreciate the article Patricia.

Thanks for your comments, Robert. However, I don't agree about human racial evolution as relating to sport. Let's look at this for a minute, and I think you'll see that your theory doesn't hold water.

At one time, ALL races had to hunt in order to live, no matter what skin color they had, or which latitude or climate they lived in. And different parts of the globe presented different challenges. Africa is a huge continent. Hunting in the desert areas of the north was a whole different challenge from hunting in the central savannahs or equatorial forests.

One big factor, for all races, was the availability (or not) of domestic animals to help in hunting. Running down your family's dinner on foot was a lot harder than running it down on a domesticated camel or horse. Since it is seldom practical to get your dinner by running after it for any great distance (try chasing a jack rabbit or antelope sometime), humans of all races devised a variety of successful strategies that involved the least expenditure of effort -- namely stalking and ambush and traps, NOT running.

In the Americas, the modern domesticated horse was not found here before the Spanish came. So many millennia of First Nation people had to hunt without that kind of four-legged help. Native American people were outstanding runners -- also brilliant hunters -- but they did it more often by calling animals, and stalking and ambush, which is how they managed to kill entire herds of bison by stampeding them over cliffs. After they got horses, they became brilliant horseback hunters who could chase down their dinner. But it was the horse that did the running.

The fact is, there are many stocks of people living on the African continent, and they have a wide variety of body types. So do Native Americans, as well as Europeans and other peoples living in every part of the globe. When we talk about "race," we mostly mean skin color. And the DNA experts tell us that genetic differences between the races, especially those that determine the most visible characteristics, are hard to pick out when you're looking at the DNA.

So the cultural concepts of "race," and all the attitudes that civilizations have built around them -- notably the pride in one's race, or the hatred and contempt of other races -- is mostly a manufactured idea that isn't grounded in the science of DNA.

Now -- it IS true that, since the Olympics re-started in 1876, Africa has produced a spate of outstanding runners, both male and female. By far the largest number of top runners come from among the Nandi and Kikuye people of East Africa. But it's not because of hunting. It's because these champions grew up in rural areas where there was a "running culture." Buses are scarce and people are too poor to own cars, so you get to school, or to the next village, or do your cattle herding, on foot. You get there faster if you run. Greats like Kip Keino and Wilson Kipketer spent their childhoods running as part of life.

Scientists have puzzled over this East African sports record, and found that the running culture, along with the diet, the inured attitudes and harder training, were more the cause of great running than ethnicity. Because people from these areas could typically run the legs off other Africans as well as whites.

Caster Semenya isn't East African. But note that she's from a remote village in SA, and grew up running, and playing at sport involving running.

Check out this interesting scientific analysis that explores why black African runners consistently outperform white runners http://www.pponline.co.uk/encyc/0416.htm.

And an interesting piece on the East African runners at http://cultures.dk/no/23/06godal1.html

In the U.S., social and economic differences also determine which races have historically predominated in which sports. That's a whole 'nother subject that we could explore, and it explains why African-Americans have been such a dominant force in (for example) pro basketball for a long time. You can see this trend clear back to the touring teams like the Harlem Globetrotters of the 1930s, because basketball as a career became easily accessible to young black men who wanted to get out of the ghetto.

Whereas for a long time, you didn't see African-Americans at the owner and trainer level in U.S. Thoroughbred horse racing. This is a sport for the super-wealthy and has been dominated by whites. But now that is changing rapidly, with super-wealthy black NFL and MBA stars having the financial ability to get into horse-racing at the very top.

Robert Ganshorn Robert Ganshorn | August 26, 2009 12:12 AM

Patricia, I think we agree more than disagree in this matter, but I was concentrating on how...

(Whether humans began as a species between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, or in Africa itself, is still debated)

...the migration of our universally common human ancestors with 99.9% the same genome were shaped by their terrain as they migrated around the world.

Identical twins raised at different altitudes have different lung capacities. I surely take your point about a "running culture." I believe that our bodies are shaped by the obstacles we overcome in survival and those tendencies concentrate in a fortunate few elite athletes.

Regan DuCasse | August 25, 2009 11:02 AM

Hi Robert! Good point. When I was very young, my father was a bodybuilding enthusiast. He got me started lifting weights and training with them, when NO girls or women were around and sometimes there were objections to me being in the gym. I am tall, and I have very broad shoulders and back and a deep chest cavity.
I have trained my upper body so that I have the proportionate upper body strength of a man my size.
Some athletes should train according to the way they are built and can excel in certain sports more appropriate to it.

The generalization that women don't have the upper body strength of men, is only half true. A women of a certain build CAN have it, but it's a matter of training. Which is true for just about everything.

Young people should be encouraged to achieve optimal excellence, period.
Gender shouldn't inhibit individual talent and ambition.
I see that Ms. Semenya has the long thigh bones, rounded gluteus maximus and quads that are the physical hallmark of a powerful runner. Her hip width is nearly plum with her knees, which makes the hip to knee angle nearly straight and very stable for strong purchase as she runs.

She's built just right for this sport. Which is tough on girls because usually there is more of a slanted angle between hip and knee and repetitive high impact sports like running puts risk on women's knees.

Just like in times when I've seen color or gender blind casting in theatrical plays and musicals, after a while you don't notice the difference, you simply enjoy the tremendous talent.

Sometimes I don't care what gender a person is, I just love seeing the performance.

I have to agree with the majority...a fair, reasoned, and informative. A very nice piece.

Robert,
The reason you see so few African descended people in swimming is because of MONEY.

There are kids who have the talent. I knew a few myself growing up. But the closest swimming pool to my neighborhood was several miles and two long bus rides away.

If a kid doesn't have access to the coaching, competition, and affordable pool access to train, that potential Michael Phelps or Dara Torres moves on to take up another less expensive sport.

Most predominately Black high schools don't have swimming pools like mine did. We had one only because it was designed and designated for White students and shifting neighborhood demographics made it a predominately Black school.

Robert Ganshorn Robert Ganshorn | August 25, 2009 10:18 PM

Monica it cannot be just about money alone or the Williams sisters would not be a phenomenon. Tiger Woods would not be an Asian/African phenomenon.

I certainly did not wish to open this type of conversation, but as explained to me by an African American runner (a male) athletic Africans have a natural advantage in running due to size and shape of lungs, aerodynamic body type, rock strong thighs and low body fat/high muscle percentage. Now perhaps he was wrong and if so I apologize for the misinformation. I presume doing it (and being it) he knew more firsthand than I.

He also explained to me that this low body fat tendency in the athletic African male made them less able swimmers. They would sink to the bottom more easily. Everyone knows there is a "swimmers build" and a "runners build."

As to costs all competitive sports have costs. have you see what track shoes cost for instance? Have a great Kentucky day and please know that my comments were meant to celebrate natural racial athletic advantages and not to comment in the negative about anyone.

Robert Ganshorn Robert Ganshorn | August 25, 2009 11:55 PM

Oh, I should add, my 90% Caucasian high school was the only public high school in town and also did not have a swimming pool. Five miles and two bus rides away for me was the over chlorinated YMCA pool. If you are interested you get there.

Regan DuCasse | August 25, 2009 1:10 PM

Excellent point Monica. Gymnastics, golf, tennis, and swimming and diving require expensive facilities, equipment and coaches. Heck even classical ballet or ballroom dancing for that matter.

Baseball and basketball require less of that, hence the dominance of blacks in those sports.
But it tends to leave out females, except for track and field, which are also more accessible to black women and men. Gender bias in soccer around the world is why women aren't regarded on a par as men in the sport.

The Tiger Woods and Williams sisters are still anomalies and shouldn't be. Just goes to show what COULD happen if money weren't an issue...sure would be a lot more world beaters of color or who are women out there.

Robert Ganshorn Robert Ganshorn | August 26, 2009 9:13 AM

Tiger Woods and the Williams sisters are the top ranked athletes in their respective sports which had once been a Caucasian preserve of "gentility." Just as Jessie Owens showed up Hitler's best of his "master race" many others followed after. We may all wish to rail against the unfairness of the world, but at some point something is unfair to everyone.

In this discussion, something we shouldn't forget is what handicappers call "the variables." These are all the possible influences on a given performance. They certainly include physical giftedness and genetic heritage, along with training, attitude, drive to win and sheer talent for a sport.

But the variables also include influences of weather, environment, health, diet, altitude, lingering fatigue from previous performance, jet lag, equipment malfunction, even the effects of personal relationships... not to mention how the variables line up for other contestants. And, yes, they can include stealthy use of performance-enhancing drugs.

Handicappers have their extreme science of studying all the variables, in hopes of spotting those that will tip the balance towards victory for a long shot.

And, as Monica pointed out -- in the broader sense, the variables definitely include money, and social and economic factors. These determine whether an athlete could even afford to break into a sport to start with. And they include a powerful drive to excel, that often characterizes athletes of color, or athletes of other disadvantaged groups, who have to struggle up from the very bottom of the ladder.

A top athlete in any sport, with a build that is considered classic and perfect for that sport, can still have a bad day. This is how Michael Phelps, with his perfect swimmer build, got beaten several times recently. Indeed, this is how Tiger Woods -- who might be the greatest golfer that ever lived -- manages to lose a tournament now and then. One variable that affects Tiger right now is a change in his swing owing to the recent knee surgery.

Robert mentioned the Nazi idea of the "master race." By creating the myth that "Aryan racial heritage" could trump all other variables in sport, the Nazis set up their best track & field athletes for failure at the 1936 Olympics. They were beaten by a talented and highly motivated black runner from Alabama who had spent his youth loading freight cars and working in a shoe shop.

The same can be said for Jim Thorpe, the first great Native American athlete in U.S. history, who was born poor on the rez in Oklahoma, and won the pentathon and decathlon at the 1912 summer Olympics. He went on to be voted one of the most versatile athletes of all time, because of his success in pro football, basketball and baseball.

So there is way more to Caster Semenya than "build." She's been winning because she is enormously talented and motivated, and physically gifted, and well-trained. Plus she has that rural background that distinguishes the best African runners. Plus she is on a big improvement curve in her training, which accounts for her winning streak and the dramatic drop in her times. Overall the variables have been lining up for her big-time.

Unfortunately the gender-testing rules put a great deal of sensationalist emphasis on the purely physical -- on a woman's build and biochemistry. Which is unfair and inaccurate, because athletic performance can't be reduced to the physical and body type.

No matter what the case is, I still feel bad for her. They should have investigated this before the race.

There is a South African website called "The Science of Sport" that is doing some excellent and reasoned home-base analysis of Semenya's situation. It's a must-read for anybody who wants to get a better understanding of the international behind-the-scenes complications. Check it out
http://www.sportsscientists.com/

Among other things, South African authorities say they already did some testing on Semenya, and she passed muster. But nobody seems to know exactly what they did. The IAAF made their decision to do their own testing three weeks before the race.

Elisa Cusma this is impossible to a extent that people even have proof to identify that she is femininely a female,we need to get this in our heads and make it clear that we cant go around and clarify inadequate information like this.Caster is female and there is nothing that could be done to edit her sex.

IT'S UNFAIR UNFAIR UNFAIR UNFAIR UNFAIR
On the question of "unfair" you say that athletes will always have some kind of physical difference to give them a "built-in edge -- better-than-usual eyesight, for example, or an inherited ability to tolerate lactic-acid buildup" as the reason not to get overly strict about gender. OK, you convinced me - let's change things so that anyone can compete against anyone else. Let's have only unisex sports competitions and record keeping.
What Was That I Just Heard You Scream, "THAT WOULD BE UNFAIR TO WOMEN"!

You are missing my point...which is that sports can't legislate to eliminate all of the variables. Example: There have been tall muscular women runners like Maria Mutola who supposedly had an unfair advantage and were incessantly rumored to be "male" but who passed the gender test with flying colors. So what is the basis on which you would eliminate Maria Mutola from competing against other women?

Some sports do try to level the playing field as much as they reasonably can, for both genders. Boxing, for instance, has its weight classes. Age-group sports in schools do the same.

But there is a point beyond which the effort to bar the Maria Mutolas from women's competition becomes bigotry against "masculine looking women."