03 July, 2015

The Semenya puzzle

Caster Semenya burst upon the athletics world in 2009 when she won the World championships over 800 m with a blazing 1:55.45. Previously unknown, her only participation at a major international event was that of the 2008 World junior championships where she did not progress beyond the heats. Her best 2008 performance was a respectable 2:04.23, registered in October.

I will not discuss the almost 10 seconds’ leap from 2:04 to 1:55 in just a few months. Things like that may happen (although they are extremely unlikely) in particular with young athletes. What has always been bothering me was the fact that not only Semenya was looking like a man

but most probably feeling like a man, if one judges by the choice of her attire. 

The story is known. After her victory at the 2009, Berlin, World championships, there has been an outcry of the other competitors claiming that Semenya was a man. Given the importance of the matter the IAAF decided to investigate but this resulted to Semenya being allowed to participate in women’s races. However the medical details of the case remain confidential. Other sources did not hesitate to piece together what is known in the Semenya gender case, based on sources closely related to the official test. Semenya has both male and female sexual characteristics. She has no womb or ovaries and has (undescended) testes, causing her to have triple the levels of testosterone of other female athletes.

Does this mean that Semenya is a man?

Gender testing is really complicated. At the beginning, let’s say the 60s when serious gender testing was established, gender testing was essentially based on anatomy. Of course this is a first but clearly insufficient step. So, chromosomal testing was introduced and it was accurate in most cases. Most but not all, unfortunately. While in most cases having an XX profile means that you were a woman there were cases where somebody with an XY profile could have female genitalia. The condition is known as the Complete Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome. It is due to the fact that the gene for male foetal development did not work properly and thus both male and female genitalia did develop. While in this case male hormones are not produced at quantities which would have been normal for men they may be present in excess to what is normal for women. Still, the IOC has decided that athletes who have the CAIS syndrome should be considered as female. So, although we do not know for sure whether her case is the one just described, Semenya is allowed to participate to competitions as a woman.

Why does this business bother me?

Since that 2009 victory, Semenya has participated at two other major competitions, the 2011 World’s and the 2012 Olympics finishing second each time. I remember the commentary of Colin Jackson on the 2012 olympic race. He was convinced that Semenya threw the race. Having watched a number of times the video of the race I am convinced of the same. Perhaps after the 2009 outcry Semenya has settled for places of honour in order to provoke fewer reactions. If this were the case, and the probability is not zero, I, for one, would be deeply disappointed by the current state of athletics and the laxity of the governing bodies. 

I am afraid that there is no solution to the Semenya mystery. The most recent piece of the puzzle is the announcement (later refuted) that Semenya got officially engaged to her girlfriend, fellow runner, Violet Raseboya.

There is also a rumour that Semenya has been compelled to take hormones in order to keep her testosterone levels within an acceptable range but has never been confirmed. On the other hand the most recent photos of Semenya present a slightly more feminine figure. However this can be easily arranged by other means. 

So, is Caster Semenya a man or a woman? I do not know. Should she be allowed to run as a woman? I would be tempted to say no, but I will reserve my verdict for after the 2015, Beijing, World championships. If Semenya, after a series of lacklustre performances over the past two years, manages to win another medal, that would definitely mean that there is something very fishy going on.

No comments:

Post a Comment