What Does Semenya Have To Prove?

By Linda Robertson
Updated: August 27, 2009

MIAMI — Caster Semenya proved she is the fastest 800-meter runner in the world.

Now she must prove she is a woman.

The tests she undergoes will be vastly more difficult than anything she has confronted in competition, for her very identity is at stake. The gold medal she won in commanding style prompted the tests — had she finished seventh, no one would have ordered sex verification. But by the time the results come out, the gold medal will be an afterthought, if it isn’t already.

The case of Caster Semenya has intrigued — or, to put it more accurately — freaked out people everywhere. Is she really a he? Male or female?

“What is she?” is the prevalent question, rather than, “Who is she?”

When the muscular Semenya, 18, came out of nowhere to win the 800 at the world track and field championships in Berlin last week by a whopping 2 seconds, her opponents echoed what TV viewers were saying.

“These kind of people should not run with us,” Italian Elisa Cusma, who placed sixth, told Italian reporters at the meet. “For me, she’s not a woman. She’s a man.”

All of a sudden, the teenager from an isolated village in South Africa is at the center of the never-ending debate about sex in sports. A gynecologist, an endocrinologist, an internal-medicine specialist, a gender expert and a psychologist have been assigned to evaluate whether Semenya has too many male characteristics to run against females. How and where they decide to draw the line will determine Semenya’s future in track.

But if they do it right, the unfortunately public test case of Caster Semenya should provide clarification, once and for all, on the ambiguous rules of sex typing for athletes.

Masculinity, femininity, sex, gender and orientation occupy different and shifting spots on society’s spectrum. Categories blend. In sports, however, it’s either/or.

With rare exceptions — or lawsuits — there is no such thing as coed. Girls don’t play with boys and women don’t play with men. Males have biological advantages in strength and speed over females.

The first thing we want to know when a baby is born: Boy or girl?

Turns out it’s not so simple. About one in 100 people has some kind of sex variation.

“Sex is sloppy,” said Alice Dreger, professor of medical humanities and bioethics at Northwestern University and author of Hermaphrodites and the Medical Invention of Sex, as well as an essay in The New York Times on Semenya’s situation.

“Genes, chromosomes, hormones, genitals, internal reproductive organs — it is more complicated than we were led to believe in the seventh grade. A person can have one sex on the outside and another on the inside. There is a lot more variation in the human species than two types.”

Relatives and friends of Semenya — those who changed her diapers and have seen her naked — told South African newspapers that she is and always has been female. They also say the doubts about her are driven by racism.


“It’s outrageous for people from other countries to tell us, `We want to take her to a laboratory because we don’t like her nose or her figure,’ ” Leonard Chuene, chief of South Africa’s track federation, told The Observer of England.

He blames the international track federation (IAAF) for violating Semenya’s privacy. The IAAF said it only revealed the decision to test Semenya after media inquiries about suspicions of her.

She has no doping violations. She has dramatically lowered her 800 time by 7 seconds and her 1,500 time by 25 seconds this year. South Africa’s coach is Ekkart Arbeit, former East German coach during that country’s steroid-fueled heyday. One of his ex-athletes, Heidi Krieger, said she ingested so many drugs she was forced to undergo a sex change.

The IAAF is in a delicate position as it balances fairness to other runners, sensitivity to Semenya and credibility to the world in a sport battered by cheating scandals.

Think how the U.S. women’s swimming team felt at the 1976 Olympics. They saw the hulking East Germans in the locker room, heard their low voices and complained that they were racing men.

For that, Shirley Babashoff was nicknamed “Surly Shirley.” And she was denied the gold medals she would have won had she not been competing against artificially enhanced opponents.


There doesn’t appear to be anything sinister about Semenya. She has been thrust into a spectacle. British bookmakers are offering odds on whether she will be ruled a female, male or hermaphrodite, but most people feel compassion for her. What’s most probable is that she has a higher level of naturally occurring androgens, just as most elite female and male athletes do.

“So it’s not fair to say higher levels are allowed for men but not for women,” Dreger said. “That would be like saying super tall guys are not allowed to play basketball.”

What is fair? We have decided where to draw the line for a foul ball, a first down, a three-point basket. Where do we draw the line on sex?

“Nature isn’t drawing a neat bright line between male and female,” Dreger said. “A decision has got to be made — a sporting decision like the definition of field of play — on sex typing.”

The doctors examining Semenya have a challenging opportunity to ponder the array of anomalies of the human body and decide what counts in sports.

“Open it to scientific review,” Dreger said. “A public discussion would be healthy for everyone.”