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Archive for August, 2009

This Week in the News: Week Beginning 17/08/2009

18 year old Caster Semanya, athlete from South Africa, was the subject of ridicule this week amid speculation that she might be a he…

On July 21st, Semanya won the African Junior Championship when she ran the 800m and 1500m races, finishing faster in the 800m than anyone of any age or gender this year. Dramatic improvements in her own personal best for the 800m caused suspicion of drug use.

Due to her achievements, Semanya was invited to compete at the International Association of Athletics Federation (IAAF) World championships in Berlin starting on 15th August. Three hours before she was due to compete in the 800m final, news broke via a source that the IAAF had asked Semanya to partake in a gender test. The IAAF later explained that they do not suspect foul play. The tests involve sessions with an endocrinologist, gynaecologist, internal medicine expert, an expert on gender and a psychologist.

She went on to win the 800m but the news caused a lot of gossip to spread. Fellow competitors, Mariya Savinova from Russia who finished fifth in the race, and Elise Piccione from Italy who finished sixth, raised concerns about Semanya’s gender and insinuated that she had an unfair advantage. Piccione made further comment to the media that, “for me, she is just not a woman.”

This reaction by the IAAF has come under criticism.

Firstly, gender tests are costly and not entirely accurate. Professor Kath Woodward, expert on gender testing from Open University commented that, “the very term gender classification suggests that we could get at the truth, but gender is complex”, an issue Semanya’s case is proving. Professor Woodward added that, “more people that we imagine do not conform neatly to the genetic and physical criteria that mark the sexes.”

Gender classification testing in athletics began in 1966 but has largely discontinued due to inaccuracies and because it was considered ‘insensitive’, particularly as the testing only targets female athletes.

This brings me to my second point. The IAAF have allowed sources to leak statements about the progress of this story to press. Should the test prove Semanya to have a genetic anomaly, such as an intersex condition, the very public circumstances could have shattering consequences to Semanya’s emotional health and thusly, her career. You only have to look at sports history to know this is true. Santhi Soundarajan was tested in 2006 when her gender was questioned. Soundarajan, who had been raised as a woman, did not “possess the sexual characteristics of a woman” and consequently attempted to commit suicide when this resulted in her being stripped of her medals. The IAAF should know that this is a sensitive case and should be doing all they can to prevent statements to break the news until all parties involved have been briefed as such.

Thirdly, a twelve year old Semanya ran the Freedom run in South Africa. She won, but was stripped of her medals when teachers complained that she was a boy and not a girl. Eric Modiba, ex-headmaster of the athlete explained that it became commonplace for her to have “toilet checks” when she competed in interschool championships. Semanya was later tested, three years ago, and despite having slightly higher than average testosterone levels, was “found to be a woman” then. Why the need for further testing? Does time degrade the level of gender a person is?

The IAAF has a policy on gender verification (2006), but nowhere in the document does the IAAF outline consequences or compensation for when an athlete has been falsely accused. Perhaps a lesson to learn from this for the IAAF could be to amend their policy to insert and action such a clause. This would act as a deterrent regarding humiliating gossip about someones gender. Not having such a clause encourages false discrimination and means the IAAF are not fulfilling item four of their current objectives which says that, “[the IAAF] strive to ensure that no gender, race, religions, political or unfair discrimination exists, continues to exist or is allowed to develop in athletics in any form.”

The IAAF say the results of the gender test may not be clear for a number of weeks. Until then, good luck to Semanya and her budding athletics career.

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This Week In The News: Week Beginning 10/08/2009

There have been two interesting bits in the news this week.

Firstly, Sarah Palin, soon to become ex-governor of Alaska, caused a furore on the 7th August when she criticised President Barack Obama’s plan to reform healthcare for the USA to a more socialised approach such as that of Britain’s National Health Service (NHS). Palin posted a statement as such online calling the plans “evil” and that: “the America I know and love is not one in which my parents or my baby with downs syndrome will have to stand in front of Obama’s ‘death panel’ so his bureaucrats can decide based on a subjective judgement of their ‘level of productivity in society,’ whether they are worthy of health care”. Later, a spokesperson for Palin commented that she had been referring to ‘advance care planning consultations’, rather than the bill itself.

However, Palin’s statement mirrors scores of others who are against Barack’s suggested plans.

For those who aren’t aware of the system the USA currently uses to provide healthcare to its inhabitants, it is health insurance-based. There are ‘free’ clinics and hospitals, but you still need to pay a fee to use these, whether you pay upfront or mortgage your house to cover the costs. Ultimately, the more complex or critical your health condition is, the increasingly imperative it is to have some form of insurance, and if you don’t? Well, no cancer/diabetes/health care for you!

The matter of concern, however, and the reason Obama is adamant to get the reform off the ground is that approximately 15.3% of the population, or 47.7 million Americans, do not have health insurance according to a survey made by the Census Bureau in 2007. To put this into some sort of perspective, estimates are that the UK populates approximately 61,612,300 individuals. Imagine if 15.3% of UK inhabitants, or 9,241,845 million individuals, were not able to receive even the very basic of healthcare. Theoretically that would wipe out healthcare for London with its population of 7,512,400 million, or the healthcare of Wales, 2.9 million, three times over. If those statistics don’t appear very spectacular, then perhaps the idea that 47.7 million equates to three quarters of the whole of the UK will go some way to represent how shocking it really is. That means nearly a country’s worth of individuals would not be getting the healthcare they need.

I recently came across an American community GP site by accident whilst googling the words ‘care’ and ‘quality’ at work for a project my boss had given me. In my spare time I had been writing this feature so I thought it apt to mention it here. The lady’s breast had given way to cancer and it was such an aggressive form that her breast started to rot. The lady didn’t have health insurance and as result, waited far longer than she should have to have it diagnosed by a doctor and treated. She survived. I doubt many more will have been so lucky.

The sheer scale of the matter is why such opposition to allowing the poorer of America to have proper healthcare particularly at a time when pandemics such as Swine flu are on the rise, should instead be considered ‘evil.’

Admittedly, the negative aspect of a healthcare reform, particularly when a system is initially being put into place, is that large lumps of American tax money would have to be channelled elsewhere. Perhaps this is the reason Palin et al are so reluctant about it all. For Palin, it would mean she would no longer be able to charge tax money to her own pocket for personal expenditures, such as she did in the presidential race of 2008. Or perhaps, it would mean America would not be able to force as many wars on other countries in the name of ‘freedom’. What a shame. More to the point, as Palin is a Republican capitalist, good healthcare is an issue she would never have to concern herself about. What of 47.7 million Americans then?

This is a very gutsy move for Obama. Even to suggest such a thing, I’m sure, brings cold sweat to American insurance companies. Health insurance is big business in the US, and even now when the idea has barely been thrown into the air, oppositions are attempting to rubbish Obama and scare-monger the people. However, no other move could help Americans more than this. Just ask Canada, or Sweden, or indeed Britain who, in defence of Palin’s attack, created the Twitter campaign ‘#WeloveNHS’ to show support for the NHS. Even Gordon Brown has lent his support to it. Elsewhere, recently, in a further attempt to defile the image of public healthcare, Investor’s Business Daily commented idly that “people such as scientist Stephen Hawking wouldn’t have a chance in the UK, where the National Health Service would say the life of this brilliant man, because of his physical handicaps, is essentially worthless.” Hawking, who has the condition Neuro Muscular Dystrophy, a form of motor neuron disease which causes an inability to control muscle activity replied, “I wouldn’t be here today if it were not for the NHS,” and that he had “received a large amount of high-quality treatment without which I would not have survived.”

The fact that there is a debate about this at all causes me to recall countless episodes of Scrubs in which heroic Doctor Cox would fight for patients with long term or critical conditions who did not have the necessary insurance to get onto treatments that would save their lives. Meanwhile, Medical Director, Doctor Kelso, condemned them to death in his big, shiny office. I know this is fiction, but that is actually a reality in America.

We shall see how this unfolds…

The second interesting piece was related to the Olympics. It was announced that the International Olympic Committee would be making a number of changes to the Olympics in time for 2012 in London. The most notable inclusion of the pack was female boxing. It will be the last sport to exclude female competitors which, being somewhat of a feminist, pleases me. The inclusion, however, has brought up the debate of whether the sport should be allowed.

On a train journey on 10th August, I picked up that day’s ‘The Independent’ in which an opinion piece by Rhoda Koenig suggested that we should “Ban women’s boxing – and men’s too”. Koenig used the beacon of all ‘this sport is bad’ arguments, Muhammad Ali and his deterioration as an example of boxing gone wrong, suggesting that if you were to box, that his fate would be yours too.

Parkinson’s disease, the condition which Ali has can be caused by contributory factors, head trauma being one of them. Others include toxins and genes. Let us suppose, on a theoretical basis that all boxers who boxed would get the disease. This is not true, of course. Many more box who have not deteriorated to that of Ali. Additionally, what of the others who have the disease who have never boxed in their lives? Perhaps the issue is that Ali had a predisposition to the disease and by boxing, he antagonised something that was already going to happen to him. There’s only one way to test this – does anyone have a cloning machine and a ring in which I can bring up two identical Ali’s to test a theory?

Another argument I have heard people to discuss on radio forums is that boxing is cruel which raises the question, cruel for whom? To get into that type of sport, being punched is something you almost have to want. It’s not something you just fall into because you had nothing better to do. There are always better things to do than being punched repeatedly in the face. For whatever reason, the buzz perhaps, people do get into the sport, but in doing so they make a choice. To therefore place it parallel with any form of cruelty is irrational. Wouldn’t energy be best placed defending those who don’t have the power, the choice or the voice to say no, those who really do not want to fight? For example, dogs used in dog fighting rings who are fighting in what they believe to be survival, or perhaps humans who actually need people to fight for their rights? Why argue on behalf of people who actively want to box as a career, whether they are female or male?

If you want to send a message to the committee that you do not agree, then turn the channel over when the boxing comes on, or send a petition, or simply don’t go to the stadium. However, Olympic stadium of not, if people want to box, they will find a way to do it and where better than an environment supported by some of the best sports doctors in the world when the alternative consists of backstreets and darkened cellars, environments where someone could get unknowingly hurt.

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