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Caster Semenya Forces Olympic Community to Rethink Gender

LONDON, ENGLAND - AUGUST 09:  Caster Semenya of South Africa competes in the Women's 800m Semifinals on Day 13 of the London 2012 Olympic Games at Olympic Stadium on August 9, 2012 in London, England.  (Photo by Mike Hewitt/Getty Images)
Mike Hewitt/Getty Images
Beau DureFeatured ColumnistAugust 10, 2012

Caster Semenya carried the flag for South Africa in the London Games opening ceremony. She has advanced to Saturday's final in the women's 800-meter run, where she's a legitimate medal contender based on her past results and qualifying time.

Should she medal this time she'll surely welcome the attention far more than the attention she received in 2009 when she burst onto the scene to win the world championship, only to see her gender called into question. The situation has forced everyone who watches or organizes international sports to think again about men and women.

A lengthy New Yorker examination by Ariel Levy in 2009 tracked efforts by the IAAF (track and field's international federation) to sort out the Semenya case. The key quote:

Unfortunately for I.A.A.F. officials, they are faced with a question that no one has ever been able to answer: what is the ultimate difference between a man and a woman?

The science

The question was already blurry back in the bad old days before anti-doping efforts took root. Athletes in East Germany's well-documented doping program watched their bodies transform.

Today, the international community has better tests and a clearer understanding of gender issues. But it's not perfect. The Toronto Star elaborates:

Dr. Stephane Bermon, coordinator of the IAAF working group on Hyperandrogenism and Sex Reassignment in Female Athletics, says the prevalence of women with higher levels of male hormones is greater than most believe.

Is that fair? Is a "higher level of male hormones" no different than Michael Phelps' perfect swimmer's build or Usain Bolt's long legs?

The scrutiny

The various bodies that decide official track and field matters took nearly a year after the 2011 World Championships to declare that Semenya could compete again—as a woman. The deliberations embarrassed the bureaucrats—"the bungled and insensitive handling of Semenya's case," sniffs The Guardian. 

Yet, questions about Semenya persist. The most pressing of those: Why hasn't she come close to matching her best time from 2009, the blazing 1:55.45 in the World Championships? The Toronto Star story hints at a possible reason:

In a move critics call “policing femininity,” recent rule changes by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), the governing body of track and field, state that for a woman to compete, her testosterone must not exceed the male threshold.

If it does, she must have surgery or receive hormone therapy prescribed by an expert IAAF medical panel and submit to regular monitoring. So far, at least a handful of athletes — the figure is confidential — have been prescribed treatment, but their numbers could increase.

Do those numbers include Semenya? Not confirmed. In 2010, the BBC's Gordon Farquhar said yes. Semenya denied it last year, but told the Star, "I can't really say anything." The Atlantic notes that she looks more feminine than she did in 2009. 

But her performances haven't been what they were. She stormed back onto the scene in 2010, leaving frustrated rivals behind. Then she suffered a back injury.

She was second in the 2011 World Championships with a fast 1:56.35, but her Diamond League results haven't been good—ninth in Monaco, eighth in Rome. She got back under the two-minute mark in early July in a small meet in Bottrop, Germany.

Her best time this year before the Games (1:59.18) trailed most of her rivals. But she led the semifinals with a time of 1:57.67.

South Africa has stood by her through it all, giving her the honor of carrying the flag into the opening ceremony. Seeing that flag raised after her race will be a tougher task. 

And yet the international track and field community may have the toughest task of all—figuring out how to be fair and inclusive when some people don't fit the mold.

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