Caster Semenya: Male or female?  //  Caster Semenya's sex in doubt, as reports of sex testing and potential disqualification surface

19 Aug 2009 Posted by

Thank you for visiting The Science of Sport. You’ve come to the right place for insight and analysis of sports news, starting with the controversy around Caster Semenya. Read on for the very first article I wrote on the story, on Wed 19 August, when the story broke.  Obviously a lot has happened since, and some of those articles are listed below.

And for other articles, check out the related posts in the sidebar or at the end of this article, or try our Caster Semenya article timeline

The Caster Semenya Controversy

20090819_Caster_Semenya_ Photo by Erik van LeeuwenBy now, most of you will be aware that South Africa’s 800m sensation, Caster Semenya, has been reported as a potential disqualification from tonight’s 800m final in Berlin, on the grounds that the IAAF had conducted tests on her to establish her sex, and that she might be male (I must clarify this – it’s not an issue of male vs female, but of “entirely female”, since she may possess secondary male characteristics as a result of some condition, reported as hermaphroditism).

This latest report (unconfirmed, I might add, at least with respects to the DQ – apparently the testing was done) is the climax of rumors that have been doing the rounds ever since the 18-year set the world’s fastest time of 1:56.72 in a low key meeting in Mauritius recently.

I have been quite silent on the issue, and will continue to do so because at this point, there is nothing but rumor to go on, with no confirmed (and independent) facts. In the days after her 1:56 time, it was widely reported/speculated that Semenya was born a hermaphrodite (having both male and female reproductive organs), and that she was cleared by testing done by Athletics South Africa (ASA). In the last few days, it has emerged that she was in fact tested, twice, by her provincial athletics federation, who are claiming that the tests showed nothing unusual.

However, that does not yet constitute “proof” of anything (if there can ever be such a thing on a matter like sex testing – more on that later). Semenya is therefore in a terrible situation. The latest reports are that ASA are saying that the IAAF did do testing, but that there are no grounds for disqualification, that the test results will take weeks to release and so she will run tonight.

The problem with the process A foreseeable controversy

I am not sure how this helps anyone. ASA seem eager to let her run, regardless of consequences down the line (which is much the same as they did in the lead-in to the Championships). The problem we now have is that she may well go on to win this final (assuming she can run, in fact, in which case I expect her to win easily), and then weeks down the line, we may yet have a disqualification and a result overturned, depending on those results. The result therefore MAY be that the silver medalist is upgraded to gold, bronze to silver, and that fourth gets bronze. What a tragic sequence of events for all the athletes involved.

Then again, stopping her from running may be equally unfair, because the tests may show nothing, and she would have been denied a world title (or at least, a shot at it). It seems to me this was a problem that was foreseeable, and one that ASA, had they had their ducks in a row, would have been able to pre-empt.

Not new allegations

The fact of the matter is that these allegations are not new. They have followed Semenya for a few years. Therefore, there was ample time to verify sex (again, a difficult process) and clear the way for her to compete. There is no doubt however, that the question was always going to be raised in Berlin, that people would ask and scrutinize, and so good management and coaching would have seen this resolved BEFORE the Championships even began. Because it was not, we are sadly seeing that Semenya will be the loser in what might well become an ugly story. There is surely nothing more offensive than the question of a woman’s sex – even a doping accusation does not come close.

However, the reality is that we (in SA, that is) have been so poorly equipped to deal with the controversy that this situation and the doubt is now inevitable. Just take for example the following quotes, from this article:

According to the media liaison of Athletics South Africa (ASA), Ethel Manyaka, ASA would not send an athlete to the World Championships if they were not certain about the participant’s gender. [Ross: Then why was Semenya sent to begin with? How could you be “certain” unless you had done comprehensive testing on her? And “comprehensive testing” means genes, hormones, physical anatomy, psychology, internal medicine – see below. To imply that ASA was certain of her sex is to imply that she had been comprehensively tested, which she was not]

“President of ASA, Leonard Cheuene, knows something like that will create a huge controversy. How are we going to do it besides asking her to show us her private parts?” quipped Manyaka.

And then this one, from her coach:

Seme (the coach) added that when they stopped at a petrol station in Cape Town recently and Semenya entered the female toilets, the petrol attendants prevented her from doing so because they were convinced she was a man. Caster just laughed and asked if they would like her to take off her pants to show them she was a woman,” said Seme.

The realities of sex testing – an enormously complex question

These quotes betray absolutely no understanding of the complexities of this sex determination test, so let me try, very briefly (I will do a full and detailed explanation of the issues at a later time) to explain the problem:

First of all, the difference between sex and gender must be clarified. In most cases they are used interchangeably, but this is incorrect. Gender refers to how an individual portrays and perceives him or herself—for example male or female. It is more of a social construct than a biological one. Sex, on the other hand, is biological, and that is the essence of the debate in this case, whether or not Semenya is of male or female sex, not gender. An individual can have male sex but female gender, and vice versa.

Following on from that, “private parts” do not alone constitute male or female. This is a rudimentary distinction, but does not acknowledge a range of developmental conditions that can cause male characteristics to develop without there needing to be male reproductive organs. The condition of pseudohermaphroditism is one where male organs develop in varying degrees, and so the absence of male organs is not proof of anything. The fact that ASA believe that “asking her to show us her private parts” will do the job suggests that they have little idea of the issues. In that case, the first quote above, regarding ASA being “certain” of her sex before sending her, is laughable. The only thing we can be certain of is that ASA have little understanding of the problem.

Second, even genetic testing cannot confirm male or female. In fact, it is so complex that to do proper sex determination testing, you have to take a multi-disciplinary approach, and make use of internal medicine specialists, gynecologists, psychologists, geneticists and endocrinologists. I am afraid that dropping your pants is not proof at all.

But, if due diligence had been followed, they’d know that, and maybe this controversy could have been prevented. For the IAAF, the leak that saw the story reported the day before the 800m final is a great concern, and a situation that should have been avoided. ASA, for their part, cannot have known her sex with any certainty, unless they believed that a simple observation was sufficient. However, you can, within 30 seconds on Google, discover that it is not. The moment she ran 1:56, and was destined to challenge for gold in Berlin, this controversy was going to happen. “Certain”? No way, and therefore, using ASA’s own criteria (which perhaps only apply in one direction), Semenya never had a chance…

Wait on judgment, it’s all still rumor

The reality is that we don’t know whether Semenya is “entirely female” (to quote from reports on the IAAF ruling). We must wait before delivering judgment, because it’s unfair on her to condemn her based on rumor. However, rumor might well have been prevented, and we could have avoided much of this current drama, had things been managed correctly from the start. Sadly, the value of expertise has never been fully recognized within ASA (a personal opinion, based on my experiences with them, I have to add).

Caster Semenya is in a dreadful situation, and I hope it works out well for her. Time will tell. But please, let’s wait before “reaching a verdict”


This post is part of the following threads: Caster Semenya, News/Controversies – ongoing stories on this site. View the thread timelines for more context on this post.

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