By Khaled Diab
26 August 2009
The jubilant reception and heroine’s welcome Caster Seminya received upon her return to South Africa might provide the unfortunate athlete with some consolation following her humiliating submission to a “gender verification” test following her 800 metres gold medal win at the World Championships in Berlin.
Personally, I don’t think Semenya’s gender is in question, as she was clearly raised as a woman. If anything is in doubt, it is her sex. I can imagine how difficult it must’ve been for her growing up looking so manly, and the amount of teasing and mockery she may have been exposed. In their bid to rally around her, South Africans made a point of emphasising her gender, calling her our “golden girl” and “Caster, you beaut”.
Based on tests that revealed that Semenya had three times the amount of testosterone in her body as would normally be expected in a female sample, there are unsubstantiated rumours that she has been taking high dosages of steroids, which could explain her appearance.
Dubbed “our first lady of sport” by the South African media, her case soon became embroiled with the country’s post-Apartheid politics. Drawing on the legacy of the struggle against Apartheid, Winnie Madikizela, Nelson Mandela’s former wife, said: “We’ve had difficult situations in the history of this country. Don’t touch us… because if you dare, we will do it again if those who want to challenge us continue to insult us using our own people.”
But, in this instance, accusations of racism are unfair, as plenty of white athletes have been made to take sex tests in the past, and track events are dominated by black people. Internationally, the segregation we need to be fighting in sport is gender apartheid.
Big, powerful women like Semenya have, like men, an unfair physical advantage in women’s events, but what is often overlooked is that petit, slender men have an unfair disadvantage in men’s sport. The solution could be to mix the sexes and introduce some new criteria, such as weight or height, to even out the playing field. Moreover, in some team sports, where physical size is less of an issue, why not introduce mixed teams?
The main justification for separating the sexes in sport is that men’s larger and stronger bodies give them an unfair advantage. However, it is also a hangover from a bygone age when sports were for men, and the only way for women to get in was to demand their own events. It’s time to rethink our antiquated attitudes to sport.