Imagine that you are an 18 year old South African woman track runner. You just won a gold medal in the 800 meters and set a new world record doing it at the World Track and Field Championships. Cause for celebration and jubilation, right?
Unfortunately, Caster Semenya will not have the opportunity to enjoy her victory. Her performance has been overshadowed by accusations and disparaging comments questioning her sex. Because of Caster’s appearance, read as masculine by her detractors, and her speed, she smashed the world record, some of her competitors and other track officials are questioning whether Caster is a woman.
Following an earlier outstanding performance by Caster, the International Association of Athletics Federation (IAAF), suspected a doping violation, but tests on Semenya found no substantiation for that charge. So, now, the IAAF is looking into the possibility that Caster is not a woman.
Instead of celebrating her victory, Caster will be subjected to a series of humiliating and invasive”sex tests” by various medical doctors that could take weeks to determine if she will be allowed to keep her gold medal and her world record. She will be prodded, poked, visually examined, blood will be drawn, she will be scrutinized from head to toe, questioned and observed.
As if that were not humiliating enough, her privacy has been completely violated as the entire issue is now fodder for the world wide sports press and any idiot with a computer to comment on. Though the testing procedure is supposed to be confidential, the IAAF spokesman said that since the word had already leaked out, their choice was to lie or violate Semenya’s privacy and that it was “unfortunate” that this has happened. Ironically, the IAAF will not reveal the names of the competitors or team that filed the official complaint. Apparently, their privacy is more important than Semenya’s.
This sorry incident provides more evidence that the world of sport needs to come into the 21st Century with regard to sex, gender and sexuality. These social constructions are way more complicated and fluid than we are led to believe in our simplistic either/or world. Add sexism to the mix: how could a woman possibly run that fast, she must be a man! Add a little narrow-mindedness about gender expression: She’s too muscular, her hair is too short, her voice is too deep. Possibly add a little racism: would a European or American athlete be treated in the same disrespectful way without regard for her privacy? Heck, while we are at it, let’s also add some homophobia too. I’m sure it’s in there somewhere.
What a sad day. Caster Semenya won the race, but she lost the sex/gender game: She doesn’t look feminine enough and she is performed too well to be considered a “real” woman.
Here is a good commentary on this from Dave Zirin and Sherry Wolf in The Nation.