Friday, 11 September 2009

The very public humiliation of Caster Semenya

It's been hard not to cringe watching the fallout from Caster Semenya's extraordinary 800m win in Berlin. Everything about the way she's been treated and reported on has been wrong, wrong, wrong.

It started with the assumption that an athlete so talented couldn't possibly be a woman. Now that testing has confirmed Semenya is intersex, cringeworthy headlines and comments are popping up all over the place: 'Caster Semenya's sex stripped bare' on Stuff; a comment by Peirre Weiss, the International Association of Athletics Federation secretary general, that "It is clear that she is a woman, but maybe not 100 per cent"; and this Daily Telegraph article, which is so disgraceful that I'm not going to quote it.

What's surprising about Semenya's story is not that an intersex woman is competing at the highest level in athletics, but - as a representative of Intersex Awareness New Zealand pointed out - that the sporting fraternity seems so unprepared to handle the jandal. Semenya surely isn't the first intersex person to complete, and certainly won't be the last. But the world of sport is like the wider world in that regard - neatly divided into a binary, and hostile to those who don't fit exactly on either side of the dividing line. Semenya's story is a reminder of the callousness and lack of understanding with which those who don't meet gender expectations are sometimes treated.

I'm not sure how best intersex can be included in sport, but the answer is surely not to require them to go through public testing regimes, like Caster Semanya, while a sneering media looks on. In all the excited attention to the intimate details of Semanya's biology, the fact that she's an extraordinary sportswoman - and, more importantly, a human being with feelings - has been sadly overlooked.


Cactus Kate said...

Good God, we agree!

At 18 however if you haven't got your period and were as ripped as she is in the stomach, wouldn't you pop off to the Dr for a full examination of why?

Having no womb with the addition of (gulp) inner testes, is a little different to being an athlete and not having periods due to the stress of training.

I am a little disbelieving that she entered with at least South African officials not knowing that something was amiss and required a trip to a proper gyno.

Hugh said...

Seems to me the neatest solution would be to have three competing categories - male, female and intersex. However... the problem is that intersex athletics might get relegated to an even less visible role than female athletes. Whether we are required to give athletes visibility rather than just a chance to compete with their peers, well, that's another issue.

Boganette said...

"and were as ripped as she is in the stomach"

She's an athlete. She didn't wake up with a 'ripped' stomach.

*Rolls eyes*.

Why is everyone so damn obsessed with her stomach? She's an ATHLETE. That's what female athletes who train hard look like. It's not a male characteristic to have a six pack.

Don't you watch sport? You'd shit your pants if you saw a good female bodybuilder.

Andrei said...

Men have competed as women in the past, most famously Dora Ratjen who was really Hermann Ratjen.

If you want to get rid of gender testing you will need to eliminate womens sports and have everybody compete in one pool.

Anna said...

Why would you have to eliminate women's sports to create a single pool of participants? You could eliminate men's sports to achieve the same thing. That kind of implies that women's sports is an add on to 'real' men's sports.

Hugh said...

Anna, I believe what Andrei means is that, if the best male athletes competed against the best female athletes, 99% of the team, the men would win. Hence the elimination of women's sports, not as a category, but as a visible factor.

Is Andrei right? It's an interesting question. Does the edge male athletes have depend on some innate physical edge, however slight, or is it a product of patriarchy and sexism? Or possibly both?

Anna said...

I have no knowledge of such things and I can hardly run without tripping over my own feet, but I think it's fair to concede that men have greater muscle mass, etc, on average than women do, so I guess you'd expect some average difference to be there amongst sportsmen and sportswomen.

But you can overstate that argument too - there's more to a lot of sports than just strength (eg strategy, stamina). And you get into that tricky zone of trying to define what is male and female (or what disqualifies one from either category). If Caster Semenya's appearance met people's expectations of femininity, her sex would probably never have been questioned, despite her chromosonal condition - her only 'symptom' would have been being an extraodinary athlete. Would a woman with naturally high testosterone levels but no chromosonal disorder count as a woman? A woman who'd had a hysterectomy, or mastectomy? Difficult.

Andrei said...

Well Anna take for example the 800 meters at the last olympics

The woman's gold medal was won by
1. Pamela Jelimo, Kenya in 1 minute and 54.87 seconds

The mens Gold medal was won by Wilfred Bungei, Kenya 1:44.65

The slowest time recorded in any of the mens heats not final was by a Mauritanian runner at 1:57.43 and this was the only runner in the entire event with a slower time than the Womans Gold medal winning time so 63 out of 64 male competitors would have won the Womans gold medal if they had competed as a woman.

How would that go down with you if one of them had done this and won?

Andrei said...

I am slightly wrong there was one other slower runner at Beijing a fellow from Guam who ran it in 1:57.48.

Still the principle is correct

Anna said...

Andrei, I'm not disputing that on average men tend to do better in some sports than women, for physiological reasons - or that women would tend to lose if the sexes competed together.

But talking about 'eliminating women's sport', rather than eliminating gender categories in sport, makes it sound like women's sport is of less importance or interest than men's. Your choice of words made is sound like sport is primarily a blokes' activity, and the women tag along. There are physiological reasons why men and women may not be able to compete on the same terms in some sports, but I don't think that means women's sports should be viewed as a kind of poor cousin to men's sport. (To be fair, I think this is a widely held assumption - hence the fact women's cricket and rugby don't seem to attract the same interest as men's.)

There are certainly sports where men will on average do better by virtue of their bodies - eg weightlifting. But there are others where having a male body doesn't necessarily confer an advantage - everything from archery to snooker to equestrianism to table tennis. Some sports seem to be gendered more out of convention than anything else - hence the fact that men are increasingly playing social netball with/against women. The biological differences between men and women can't be ignored, but they don't need to be overstated either - and in the general population, there's a huge amount of crossover of men and women who aren't too disimilar in height, weight, strength etc.

Hugh said...

But talking about 'eliminating women's sport', rather than eliminating gender categories in sport, makes it sound like women's sport is of less importance or interest than men's.

Anna, I think you're kind of reading past what Andrei's saying. He's not saying he -wants- women's sport to disappear. He's saying that in a mixed gender field women would almost entirely vanish from the top rankings. So we would have 'sport for everybody, regardless of gender' that is dominated by men. An ideal result from a feminist perspective?

While it's true that the physiological differences between men and women are pretty minor and tell us little about any two randomly chosen individuals, in the world of Olympic-level competition, where athlete's costumes are designed to cut down wind resistance, even a tiny advantage can be decisive. This is the thinking behind the investigation of Semenya's gender - if she has male physiology but is competing as a man, she is effectively cheating, even if unknowingly cheating.

It seems you accept the need for there to be separate male and female sports categories, at least in some sports. If that's the case, then I'd submit that the issue of women's sports not getting media attention, while a valid one, is not really relevant to what Ms Semenya is going through right now.

The real question is - how is it possible to actively police the necessary delineation between male and female sports without stigmatising transgender people, as Semenya has been stigmatised? This post implies that the solution is to keep the media out of it, but I think that's not realistic - every other aspect of Olympic-level sports comes under heavy media scrutiny. I think my earlier suggestion, of having a stream of sports for people who don't define as male or female, is the best solution, but still has a lot to make it unsatisfactory.

Andrei said...

you are missing my point entirely

Do you want to see a women's 800 meters event in London 2012?

Would you like to see a New Zealand woman run in this event?

How about Nikki Hamblin (she naturalized but counts as kiwi now)
Her time in Berlin was 2:31.94.

Compare that to Caster Semenya's 1:55.45. See the difference not in the same ball park.

now to be fair that time will have to be improved upon substantially if Nikki Hamblin is to get a berth in the 2012 800 meters event but you get the picture. If Caster Semenya is actually a male she is excluding people like Nikki Hamblin from reaching the elite levels of womens sport.

Thats my point

Anna said...

I see what you mean, Andrei - that women's sport might end by default if the sexes competed against one another, because men would tend to dominate the elite group. That's true, but I'm not necessarily arguing for the inclusion of Caster Semenya in women's sport. I don't think Intersex Awareness NZ were either. I see the key issue as being finding a way to include intersex people in sport (and dealing with gender issues more broadly) in a way that doesn't undermine their dignity. For example, if the sporting fraternity wants to use chromosomes to define sex, then it would be fairer to test all participants before they compete, rather than just those (women) who are deemed to be suspicious because of their appearances or their ability. That could be done a lot more discreetly, and might be less likely to end in a media circus.

Andrei said...

then it would be fairer to test all participants

They used to Anna - this is not a new issue, it goes back to the nineteen thirties.

This is far from the first time this has come up.

In this particular instance South African Athletics could have and should have resolved it before she ran in Berlin.

ZestySea said...

Caster Semenya should not be excluded from women's sport. To all intents and purposes she is a woman. Her abilty to bare children is NOT a condition on being female. She is an extraordinary athlete - In the same category as Usain Bolt. We aren't banning him for the reason the others stand no chance of winning against him. Why on earth is it so importatnt to define a separate category for "intersex" people - just get over it and let them particate in whichever seems most reasonable.

pete said...

If the reports are correct (Semenya has AIS) then from what I've read being "intersex" gives her no advantage in athletics, so there should be no issue with her competing against other women.

@Andrei: Nikki Hamblin did 2.31 because she tripped over another runner and could only jog to the finish. She's capable of 2.00.90 --- only 6 seconds back from Semenya.

Julie said...

Thanks for writing about this Anna, I've been thinking about it too.

Readers may be interested in the response of a Canterbury intersex group.

Anonymous said...

You have to admit, Caster does look very masculine.


But when it all comes down to it, I dont think her personl circumstances his anyones business. She is a women, that is the gender recorded on her birth certificate. End of story.