Race Not the Issue in Track Star's Gender Query

Some issues are black and white, but this is he or she

By Dr. Boyce Watkins
|  Friday, Sep 11, 2009  |  Updated 11:30 AM PDT
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Race Not the Issue in Track Star's Gender Query

AP

There are legitimate questions about the gender of South African track star Caster Semenya.

The world is now talking about Caster Semenya, the South African athlete who has been subjected to gender testing after dominating the field in the 800-meter run at the 2009 World Championships. Recent reports by the Daily Mail of London and the Sydney Morning Herald of Australia state that the test has revealed that Semenya "is a hermaphrodite with no womb or ovaries." Some have argued that Semenya was the target of the investigation because she is black, but I am not sure if I am on board with that presumption.

If the reports are true, I am not surprised. Race issues to the side, I too found myself wondering if I was seeing things, as I watched Semenya thump her chest in victory and speak with a voice that could bring Barry White back from the grave. I was disturbed, but open-minded, for I considered Semenya's case to be an opportunity to explore cultural variations in gender perception.

Another use of the word "race" applies when analyzing Semenya's time in her race of choice, the 800-meter run. Not only did this 18-year old come out of nowhere to run a time which instantly dominates the world's most highly trained 800 meter runners (1:55.45), but her time was nowhere near the world record (1:53.28), set by Jarmila Kratochvilova of Czechoslovakia in 1983. Like Semenya, Kratochvilova could easily be mistaken for a man.

Jarmila's dominance over her sport came during a time in which it was widely speculated (and documented) that women from eastern bloc countries were heavily involved in hormonal therapy to improve their performances. In fact, women from the 1980s ran times that are uncontested to this day and East German shot putter, Heidi Krieger actually claims that extensive steroid use caused her to feel like a man and want to become one (after getting a sex change, she now lives as a man named Andreas). While these women were technically female, the truth is that their hormones had been altered so much that they had all the power advantages of being male.

Caster Semenya, quite frankly, exhibits many of the characteristics of Soviet Bloc athletes of the 1980s, so tests for both drugs and gender were in order. Her deep voice, rapid improvement in time, seemingly instant domination over the competition and amazing muscle development give international bodies enough just cause to make sure Semenya belongs on the female side of the track. The reported finding that she has "internal testes," generating body hair, muscle development and a deep voice are consistent with what the rest of the world saw on the track, and that would constitute an unfair advantage.

Caster Semenya is not a suspect simply because she's black; black women dominate races all the time and no one says a thing. In the midst of such blatant suspicion of Semenya's bio-chemical makeup, authorities have an obligation to investigate.

Friends and family in South Africa may be correct that Semenya has been raised as a girl her entire life. The athlete has even expressed a willingness to drop her pants in front of the world to show her genitalia (can you imagine the TV ratings for that event?). But being raised as a girl doesn't mean you actually are a female. Gender is determined by a complex battery of tests, the most important of which is whether you have two X chromosomes (implying you are female), vs. an X and a Y (meaning you are a male). Additionally, given that Semenya is reportedly a hermaphrodite, dropping her pants in front of the world might have been a bit embarrassing for all parties involved. There is nothing wrong with being a hermaphrodite, but a hermaphrodite is not always considered to be a woman.

If Caster Semenya is indeed a woman and that fact can be confirmed, then such vindication would be an amazing "I told you so" for the South African government. But becoming appalled at the idea of testing her in light of so much problematic evidence only magnifies suspicion that someone cut a few corners to help an athlete bring home a gold medal. The East German Government is reported to have given steroids to thousands of athletes in the 1980s, so it is not inconceivable that there are other governments willing to make allowances to see their athletes conquer the global stage at the world championships.

We should be reminded that there are only reports of Semenya's test results, and no information has been officially released. Additionally, the tests should be confirmed by independent scientists, so politics can be eliminated as a contaminant. Black, white or any other race, Semenya would be suspicious, no matter what race she happened to be.

For more stories from The Grio, go to thegrio.com.

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