Thursday, November 19, 2009



November 19, 2009, 10:30 AM

On Thursday the South African government tried to end the controversy over the gender of Caster Semenya, the runner who was crowned world champion in August for the women’s 800 meters, by declaring that an agreement had been reached to let her keep her medal and not release the results of gender tests carried out after her victory.

In a statement posted on the Web, the South African Sports Ministry said that it had reached this deal with the International Association of Athletics Federations, or I.A.A.F.:

Because Caster has been found to be innocent of any wrong, she will then –
• Retain her gold medal
• Retain her title of 800m World Champions
• Retain her prize money.

We have also agreed with the I.A.A.F. that whatever scientific tests were conducted legally within the I.A.A.F. regulations will be treated as a confidential matter between patient and doctor. As such there will be no public announcement of what the panel of scientists has found. We urge all South Africans and other people to respect this professional ethical and moral way of doing things.

The implications of the scientific findings on Caster’s health and life going forward will be analyzed by Caster and she will make her own decision on her future.
Reuters reported that “The I.A.A.F. said it could not confirm the details in the statement but said it had accepted the resignation of Athletics South Africa (A.S.A.) President Leonard Chuene from the I.A.A.F. Council and had opened a formal investigation into the handling of the Semenya affair by Chuene and A.S.A.”

On Wednesday the international body had posted a statement on its Web site confirming that it was “in discussions” with “the South African Ministry of Sport and Recreation and Caster Semenya’s representatives … with a view to resolving the issues surrounding Caster Semenya’s participation in athletics.” The statement also said: “The I.A.A.F. will not comment upon the medical aspects of Caster Semenya’s case. The medical testing of the athlete is still to be completed.”

As Reuters also reported, “Australia’s Daily Telegraph, citing an unnamed source, reported in September that Semenya was a hermaphrodite with both male and female sexual characteristics.”

The I.A.A.F. has refused to confirm the Australian newspaper’s report.

In South Africa attention has turned to the handling of the matter by athletics officials.

Questions were raised about Ms. Semenya’s gender after her dominating win at the world championships, and the international athletics association conducted a battery of gender tests. South Africa’s Mail & Guardian newspaper reported that South African athletics officials had failed to head off the controversy by concealing the results of their own gender testing done before the event.

One unidentified official told the South African newspaper that the earlier tests results were “not good.” The same official told the newspaper that a doctor for the South African athletics team had advised officials in charge of the track team to withdraw Ms. Semenya from the world championships before she ran, after hearing the results of those gender tests.

Earlier this month the nation’s track association released a statement saying:

Athletics South Africa wishes to publicly and unconditionally apologise to Caster Semenya and her family, the President of South Africa as well as to all South Africans for the handling of her gender verification processes and the subsequent aftermath.

In September, Ms. Semenya told a South African magazine that she was not disturbed by the controversy: “I see it all as a joke, it doesn’t upset me.” She added, “God made me the way I am and I accept myself. I am who I am and I’m proud of myself.”

Last Saturday, though, Donald McRae of The Guardian wrote that Ms. Semenya told him during a recent interview: “It’s not so easy. The university is okay but there [are] not many other places I can go. People want to stare at me now. They want to touch me. I’m supposed to be famous but I don’t think I like it so much.”

While it seems entirely appropriate that the results of the tests should be kept confidential, and the world governing body has apparently concluded that Ms. Semenya did not cheat, the statement from the South African government does not make it clear if Ms. Semenya is eligible to run in future events.

Even if the final ruling is that Ms. Semenya is eligible to compete in women’s track events, the controversy has served as a reminder that some people are born with both male and female sexual characteristics. According to the Intersex Society of North America, it is hard to say how many people may be neither clearly male or clearly female. The society says:

Here’s what we do know: If you ask experts at medical centers how often a child is born so noticeably atypical in terms of genitalia that a specialist in sex differentiation is called in, the number comes out to about 1 in 1500 to 1 in 2000 births.
Even if Ms. Semenya is not in this category — and since the results of the gender tests will apparently not be released, it is likely that we will never know — this whole case does raise the question of whether it is fair that people who live as women but have some male sexual characteristics should be banned from competing in sports events not open to men.