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Semenya Not The First, Won’t Be The Last

There is a long, sad history of gender controversies in track and field, as well as other sports.

Written by: John Mendelsohn

Caster Semenya grew up in South Africa’s bleak Limpopo Province, surrounded by dusty scrubland, in a village that has only recently acquired electricity, and in which unemployment is estimated at 80%. In childhood, she wore dresses and skirts and played with dolls like other girls. Once at school, though, she discovered that she preferred football, softball and wrestling, and in secondary school abandoned skirts for trousers. Other girls decorated their bedroom walls with likenesses of prettyboy pop singers; Caster put John Cena, bodybuilder turned World Wrestling Federation champion, on hers. She told friends she wasn’t very interested in boys, though she aspired to motherhood.

Half a dozen years ago, after training on uneven dirt tracks, she won a girls’ race at sports day, only to be denied her medal after teachers from competing schools cried foul, pointing out that she was “obviously” a boy.

Last week, she won another race, the Track and Field World Championships women’s 800 meters, in a very different setting – Berlin’s packed-to-the-rafters Olympiastadion. But the reaction to her victory was nearly identical. Two of the competitors who’d enjoyed nice views of her ever-smaller back over the course of the race – Russia’s Mariya Savinova, who finished fifth, and Italy’s Elisa Piccione, sixth – were especially exorcised. “For me,” harrumphed La Piccione, expressing the view of many, “she is just not a woman.” The International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) announced that it felt it had no option but to “verify” Semenya’s gender, an “extremely difficult” process that will involve an endocrinologist, a gynecologist, an expert on gender, and a clinical psychologist. Their findings aren’t expected for weeks, or even months.

In the meantime, we might reflect women athletes having been subject to  such accusations at least since the Berlin Olympic Games of 1936, in which Stella Walsh (originally Stanisława Walasiewicz), a resident of Cleveland racing for her native Poland, won the silver medal with what one observer characterized as “large mannish strides,” and was immediately accused of being a man. A future member of the U.S. Track and Field Hall of Fame, Walsh set 20 world records and won 41 Amateur Athletic Union titles over nearly a quarter-century of competing in everything from sprints to the long jump to the discus throw. After being shot dead in a Cleveland supermarket parking lot robbery, an autopsy revealed that she had male sex organs, but both male and female chromosomes — a condition known as mosaicism. Calls for her to be stripped posthumously of her Olympic medals – she had won the 100 meters in the 1932 Olympics – went unrequited.

At those same 1936 Games, where Aryan supremacy was supposed to be on display, Dora Ratjen, notable for her deep voice and disinclination to share the shower room with other female athletes, could place no higher than fourth in the women’s high jump. Britain’s silver medal winner, Dorothy Tyler later went on to set a world record in the vent, only for Ratjen to break it. Tyler cried foul, and this time it worked; Ratjen was discovered to have been a member of the Hitler Youth forced to compete as a woman. Later, after abandoning track and field, for restaurant work, he resumed calling himself Hermann.

When the very masculine appearance of many purportedly female East German competitors inspired other countries to wonder how feminine they really were, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) introduced sex testing at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics. At first, female athletes had to strip naked and undergo invasive gynecological tests. After their introduction, a remarkable number of East German women athletes seemed to remember having left the kettle boiling at home, and withdrew abruptly from competition.

Many who stayed decried the humiliation inherent in the exams, and the IOC implemented a less invasive genetic test, using cheek swabs to determine an athlete’s chromosomes. (Women usually have two X chromosomes; men an X and a Y. According to the new rules, only those athletes with two X chromosomes could be classed as women.) This time, it was geneticists who were up in arms; sex, they asserted, is not as simple as X and Y chromosomes, since one in around 1,000 babies is born “intersexed” – that is, with chromosomal abnormalities that may be obvious from birth, as in the case of babies with ambiguous reproductive organs, but may well remain unknown to other intersexed persons all their lives. At the Atlanta games in 1996, all of the eight female athletes who failed the IOC sex tests were cleared on appeal, seven having been discovered to be intersexed.

Born with both male and female sex organs, the Brazilian judo player Edinanci Silva had surgery in the mid-90s so that she could live and compete in the Olympics as a woman, which she did in Atlanta 1996, Sydney 2000, and Athens in 2004. In Sydney, after she beat Natalie Jenkins, the ungracious Aussie referred to her with masculine pronouns, though swab tests had satisfied Games officials of Silva’s femininity.

The shot-putter Heidi Krieger was one of as many as 10,000 East German athletes compelled to take steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs in an attempt to build a race of superhuman communist sports heroes. In 1986, aged only 20, she was European champion- and suffering violent mood swings and depression. In the mid-90s, she underwent gender reassignment surgery and became Andreas. She had long been confused about her gender, but felt that the drugs had pushed her over the edge.

Spanish hurdler Maria Jose Martinez Patino failed a gender test in 1985, but was later reinstated after having been found to have androgen insensitivity syndrome, a victim of which will display female physical characteristics, but will be shown in genetic tests to have a Y chromosome. The sex of Olympic 800m champion Mozambique’s Marie Mutola, who won the gold medal at the Sydney Olympics in 2000, was questioned throughout her long career. Mianne Bagger was originally barred from the professional golf circuit when she had sex-reassignment surgery in 1995, but was finally cleared to play in 2004.

Here we might pause to ponder the question of whether male-to-female transsexuals necessarily have an unfair advantage over genetic females. Not according to research commissioned by Track and Field Inc., which has demonstrated that when male-to-female transsexuals undertake hormone therapy, they are reducing their testosterone levels and thus losing muscle mass. The research suggests that the only sport in which male-to-female  transsexuals might have an advantage is swimming, because these athletes’ increased body fat makes them more buoyant.

One of the most saddest recent cases of a woman athlete of ambiguous gender is India’s Santhi Soundarajan, who, in spite of having lived all of her 27 years as a woman, was stripped of her silver medal for the 800m at the 2006 Asian games for failing a gender test, probably because of AIS. Soundarajan’s humiliation is such that she has reportedly attempted suicide.

At this writing, Caster Semenya, official concerns about whose sex were first raised at the last year’s Commonwealth Youth Games, where she won gold, is rumored to be depressed in spite of her Berlin victory. If validated, her victory could transform the lives of her extremely poor family.

The IAAF has taken pains to make clear that it doesn’t suspect her of deliberately cheating, but feels morally compelled to ensure that she doesn’t have a rare medical condition that gives her an unfair advantage. South African politicians aren’t having it, and have accused Western “imperialists” of a public lynching, comparing Caster Semenya to Saartjie Baartman, an 18th-century Khosian woman who, as the “Hottentot Venus,” was exhibited as a sideshow attraction in Europe, where the immensity of her buttocks elicited astonished gasps.

The transsexual Canadian cyclist Kristen Worley articulates the outrage of many when she notes. “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.”

But it might be the Observer‘s Carole Cadwalladr who has responded most eloquently. “So what if Semenya does turn out to have a genetic anomaly?” she asks. “If it’s not fair that a woman with a hidden Y chromosome should compete against other women, because of a genetic advantage, then where does this logic end? Should sprinters of West African ancestry, who dominate the medal boards, compete in a different class to sprinters of other racial origin? Should Kenyan and Ethiopian long-distance runners be siphoned off into a league of their own?”