Home > Features > This Week in the News: Week Beginning 17/08/2009

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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