Feature

Semenya: Not a ‘real’ woman?

The world’s media has been wondering aloud whether South African sprinting star, Caster Semenya, is male, female, or something else altogether.

Being a teenager is hard enough, said John Powers in The Boston Globe, without the world’s media wondering aloud whether you’re male, female, or something else altogether. But that adolescent nightmare is now reality for Caster Semenya, 18, the South African sprinting star. When she broke the 800-meter world record this summer, her opponents griped that the flat-chested, deep-voiced, heavily muscled Semenya might be a man. The International Association of Athletics Federations duly ran tests, and press leaks this week claimed that while Semenya has external female genitalia, she has no womb or ovaries, and does have a pair of undescended testes pumping out male levels of testosterone. The IAAF now faces the “murky and delicate conundrum” of deciding whether Semenya can keep her medal and keep racing as a woman, or if her “unusual makeup” gives her an unfair advantage. Semenya, meanwhile, is reported to be deeply depressed and on suicide watch.

The media should be ashamed for turning the poor young woman into “a freak show,” said Katrina Fox in The Sydney Morning Herald. Modern society still has very “narrow-minded” ideas about what women should look like, and any athlete or public figure who seems “butch” is treated with scorn and ridicule. When the chiseled Martina Navratilova was dominating women’s tennis, said Dave Zirin in The Nation, we heard the same grumbling that she “must have a chromosome loose somewhere.” But in nature, male and female are not so neatly defined; people fall along various points in that continuum, and in certain not-so-rare cases, they may be both male and female. If hormones and genetic oddities were really the issue here, why wouldn’t Shaquille O’Neal be banned from basketball for being unfairly tall, or Michael Phelps banned from swimming because of his freakishly large lungs, long arms, and flipper-like feet?

Because gender is different, said Kerry Howley in Slate.com. Biology gives men an inherent athletic advantage over women; “we don’t want Serena Williams to have to forgo a tennis career because she doesn’t stack up against Roger Federer.” To give women a fair chance, an arbitrary line has to be drawn between the sexes. Cases close to the line, like Semenya’s, will always leave someone—either her or her opponents—feeling aggrieved. But what’s the alternative? In the end, sports has to define all competitors as either male or female, even if “Caster Semenya reminds us of just how impossible that is.”

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