Leading Expert Comments on Case of Caster Semenya

Jamaica’s Usain Bolt shattered world records en route to gold medals in the 100 meters (9.69 seconds) and 200 (19.19) this summer at the track and field world championships in Berlin. But headlines focused more on the sex of a South African athlete than the records broken and medals won.

Caster Semenya easily outpaced the competition in the women’s 800 meter finals, besting the silver medalist by an eye-opening 2.45 seconds. But even before her gold medal effort, there were accusations that Semenya wasn’t a female, due not only to her impressive times in the 800 but also her muscular build and tone of her voice. The speculation was so rampant, in fact, that the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) ordered gender tests to be conducted even prior to the world championships to answer the questions about Semenya.

Recently, an Australian newspaper reported that the results of the gender test revealed that Semenya, who is 18-years old, has both female and male sexual organs. To date, the IAAF has neither confirmed nor denied the report, saying only that the results were in and a decision in the case would most likely be made in November.

The story raises several questions, and to answer many of them, Fitness Information Technology (FIT) contacted Dr. Susan Bandy, one of the leading scholars on transgendered and transsexual athletes. Bandy, a visiting assistant professor at The Ohio State University, was an invited distinguished lecturer in the spring by West Virginia University’s International Center for Performance Excellence, which houses FIT. She is also an editor of Crossing Boundaries: An International Anthology of Women’s Experiences in Sport.

Q: It was recently alleged by an Australian newspaper that the gender tests conducted on South Africa’s Caster Semenya revealed that she has both female and male sexual organs. If the report is true, how should the IAAF proceed?

Bandy: It seems that the IAAF must re-examine its policies concerning human rights, rights of privacy, and matters concerning gender, sexual identity, and sexuality as these pertain to sport.

Q: Does the IAAF already have policies in place regarding transgendered and transsexual athletes? Do other international federations, such as the International Olympic Committee (IOC), have existing guidelines in place?

Bandy: Yes, the IAAF has policies regarding transgendered and transsexual athletes as well as a position that “there will be no compulsory, standard, regular gender verification during IAAF sanctioned championships.” If suspicious cases or challenges occur, as was the case with Semenya, then the IAAF will investigate the matter. In 2004, the IOC instituted policies to allow these athletes to compete, and in 2007 the NCAA also instituted policies for transgendered and transsexual athletes.

Q: What can be learned about how the Semenya case has been handled that can help international federations better manage these situations in the future?

Bandy: The revealing of the results of gender tests are matters of privacy and human rights, and Semenya’s case brings these matters into the discourse and will likely inform the IAAF and national sport organizations that they must develop policies and procedures to deal with these. The case has led to claims of racism by some leaders and activists in South Africa, which has been supported by some in the transnational athletic community; the denial of the IAAF that it had mismanaged the matter; the resignation of Semenya’s coach; and the President of Athletics in South Africa admitting to lying.

I would assume that the difficulties that have arisen as a result of the way in which the case was handled will require more attention by all sporting federations, at national or international levels. Scholars in Canada and the UK have for several years devoted their work to examining the discriminatory practice of gender testing, the recognition of intersectionality, and the need to reconsider the competitive dual-sex structure of sport. Such research can offer insight into the way in which sports institutions must change and adapt to new understandings concerning gender, sport, and sexuality. Research such as this led to the abolition of gender testing in sport in 1998, years after it was instituted in 1966 European Athletics Championships. As the case of Semenya reveals, gender testing is “alive and well.”

Q: Regarding how the alleged results of the gender tests were revealed to the public by an Australian newspaper, what type of psychological ramifications could this type of public revelation have on an 18-year-old athlete?

Bandy: Regardless of the way in which the matter is handled, there are wide-ranging ramifications of the public revelation. The case of Kelly Godsey, an athlete who competed recently for Bates College, points to the difficulties that an athlete faces. Godsey revealed her own self-identification as male, yet she faced being ostracized by her friends and fellow athletes. Another athlete such as Shanti Sounderajan of India, the 800 meter silver medalist in the 2006 Asian Games in Qatar, failed a post-race gender test, was stripped of the medal, and met considerable embarrassment at home.

I think that it is important to consider that there are distinct differences in self-identifying as another gender as was the case of Godsey, having sexual reassignment surgery (SRS) as Canadian biker Michelle Dumaresq did, and having the press reveal ones intersexuality as it did with Caster Semenya.

Q: In other news in the sports world recently, Kim Clijsters made headlines by winning the U.S. Open women’s tennis finals just two months after coming out of retirement. Much was made of Clijsters’ success primarily because during her two-year retirement she gave birth to a girl, making her the first mother to win one of the four major titles in tennis since 1980. What type of effect, if any, do you think Clijsters’ win at the U.S. Open could have on other elite female athletes who have either had or are considering having children?

Bandy: It is important to note here that Clijsters was not the first woman to have a baby, come out of retirement, and win a major tournament in tennis. Margaret Smith Court (of Australia), one of Billie Jean King’s rivals in the 1970s, became the first woman during the open era and the second woman ever to win all four Grand Slam tournaments in the same calendar year. Court won 24 Grand Slam singles titles, more than any other player, and had two of her four children during her competitive years.

This does not diminish Clijsters’ achievement, however, and the rarity of it in contemporary tennis should be recognized. As a tennis star, she receives much publicity so her story has been widely publicized. This may serve to show young athletes that being an accomplished athlete does not preclude the idea of family and children.

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One Response to Leading Expert Comments on Case of Caster Semenya

  1. […] Championships. If any good came of the situation, it forced track and field organizations to have a serious discussion about the inclusion of transgendered and transsexual athletes. A year later she was finally cleared […]

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