The latest news in the Caster Semenya situation is disheartening, but unfortunately not surprising. Wilfred Daniels, one of the supervising coaches for the South African track program, resigned. He told the Associated Press he was ashamed of the way South African officials had dealt with Semenya, the 18-year-old runner who is facing questions about her gender.
Daniels said that those in South African track’s governing body never explained to Caster that the tests she was undergoing were to ascertain her gender. The president of the organization, Leonard Chuene, refutes that. The one who sounds credible, though, is Daniels.
Questions were raised about Semenya earlier this year, even before she won the 800 meters at the World Championships in Berlin last month by a large margin. It was prior to that meet that the IAAF, track’s world governing body, requested gender tests. South African officials now seem to be denying that they actually did them in their country. Daniels says they did, but that they did not explain to Semenya what it was all about. He says she was led to believe the tests were to check her for the use of performance-enhancing drugs.
The South African federation is trying to pin all the blame on the IAAF, which now acknowledges it never should have gone public with the fact that Semenya was being tested until the tests were complete and a ruling made. (That is still pending.)
There’s no doubt the IAAF handled this poorly. However, the questions about Semenya were coming from fellow competitors, officials, spectators and media. It would be great if we lived in a world where when a teen-ager from a poor village rather suddenly became an unexpected track champion, everyone just rejoiced at such a discovery of talent. But elite track and field has had so many issues with PEDs that there is no such thing anymore as an “unquestioned” success story.
Semenya’s appearance and voice suggested to some that she had male characteristics. But the biggest alarm bell to the IAAF was still her performance being so dominant when she had virtually no previous international experience prior to 2009. It led to the suspicion that she may have a medical condition that could jeopardize her classification as “female” athletically.
Of course, as I’ve written in the two previous posts on this topic, there is so much room for speculation on the “gender spectrum” – both medically and psychologically – that trying to pin this down is, unfortunately, a subjective issue. The most knowledgeable and compassionate medical professionals in the world might look at the same tests from Semenya and come up with different answers.
But that is what the IAAF is up against: Trying to make the most just and accurate determination in the interest of maintaining fair standards of competition for everyone.
The IAAF is being vilified now, but the organization is dealing with an incredibly complicated and sensitive issue that is nearly impossible to navigate. If the IAAF did not respond to the allegations, other runners could rip the organization for not protecting their competitive rights.
That said, in demanding the tests, the IAAF officials apparently did not have a discussion with Semenya herself. Caught between two paternalistic bureaucracies, Semenya appears to have been treated as if she were a child who could be lied to “for her own good.”
It seems the South Africa federation was more worried about Semenya winning a medal than about her personal well-being. If the officials truly had put her interests first, they would have explained it all to her and acknowledged that there could be a medical condition she was dealing with. They could have prepared her for what she might have to face. They could have given her and her family enough information so she could make the decision on whether she ran at the World Championships and how she would deal with the questions.
And if the South African officials truly are as unaware of the gender spectrum or gender-identity issues as they have appeared to be publicly, then they need to educate themselves. Meanwhile, the IAAF also should have been more proactive in looking out for Semenya’s best interests.
So while the South African track governing body is in turmoil, the IAAF is deservingly contrite and embarrassed, and nobody really knows exactly what’s going to happen next … there is yet another grotesque development: the Semenya “makeover.”
She has appeared on the cover of South Africa’s “You” magazine in a glam shot to supposedly settle the issue that she’s “really” a woman. In other words, she looks absolutely nothing like she apparently has chosen to look all her life. Instead, she is made to appear like the standard stereotype of a “woman.”
Now, never mind that if you get a photographer, make-up artist, lighting and clothes that are all good enough, you could make almost anyone look a lot like either gender for the purpose of a studio portrait. The point isn’t whether this pathetic exercise in gender reinforcement “proves” anything, because it doesn’t.
The point is it should make you sick to your stomach. It’s the kind of thing we’ve seen throughout the history of women’s athletics. Anyone who’s viewed photos of Babe Didrikson as an Olympic track competitor vs. several of the subsequent publicity shots she did to “femme” herself up and be more palatable to 1940s and ’50s audiences knows how far back such contrivance goes. (Even further back than that, of course).
Numerous biographical pieces have detailed that Babe felt intense pressure to project a more “feminine” image. And so she not only resigned herself to it, she aggressively attempted to gain acceptance from a society that had strict codes about gender appearance and roles _ all of which represented an underlying near-hysteria about men feeling threatened by women and both sexes’ homophobia.
A half-century later, despite all the progress made in people letting go of at least some of that rigidity and fear, the Semenya magazine pose might as well have come from back then.
Now, some may say, “How do you know that this is forced? She says in the magazine’s story she wants to do it. Maybe this is her choice, and she is appreciative of the makeover.”
Yeah, sure. Maybe. I just seriously, seriously doubt it.
This new “look” is designed to make Semenya fit an image that people are traditionally more comfortable with. Whether she is really comfortable with it is or even feels she has a choice – those are truly unsettlingly questions.