IAAF would do well to leave Semenya alone

August 20, 2009

semenyaAll eyes were on Caster Semenya when the South African lined up for the start of her 800m final on Wednesday, but for all the wrong reasons.

The International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) said on Wednesday, hours before Semenya was due to run, that the procedure for a gender test had started following her rapid performance improvement in the past year.

Let’s get one thing clear at the outset: this case has nothing to do with cheating or any attempt to gain unfair advantage.

If an athlete, as has been the case several times in the past, disguises himself or herself as a member of the opposite sex to gain an unfair advantage, then they should be exposed, banned and accept any consequences of their attempts to cheat.

But this case is nothing of the sort and the IAAF would be better to leave well alone.

What would happen anyway if a gender verification test — click here for an excellent overview of the way testing is done —  were to prove, after weeks of examinations, that an athlete was not really female, medically speaking?

What would the IAAF do? Take her medal away and risk the legal wrangles, the years of public disputes that would follow?

The IAAF itself has said that Semenya has done nothing wrong, that “we are not talking about cheating”. So why bother with the test?

And again, what would they do? Send her off to run with the men? Obviously her times are not quick enough to be compared to men. She won with a time of 1:55.45 minutes. The men’s world record is a massive 13 seconds faster in the two-lap event. Even the women’s world record is a huge two seconds-plus faster and it has been standing for 26 years, set by Czechoslovakia’s Jarmila Kratochvilova.

According to her mother, grandmother, headmaster and friends Semenya was raised as a girl, lives like a woman and competes like one.

So why not do these tests quietly, as IAAF general secretary Pierre Weiss so correctly said when he took her place in the winner’s press conference to protect her from the media, and shut this and any similar cases quietly and discreetly, accepting that in life as in sport not everything is as simple as black or white, right or wrong, or even male or female.

PHOTO: Caster Semenya celebrates victory in the women’s 800 metres final during the world athletics championships at the Olympic stadium in Berlin, August 19, 2009. REUTERS/Kai Pfaffenbach


We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see http://blogs.reuters.com/fulldisclosure/2010/09/27/toward-a-more-thoughtful-conversation-on-stories/

Iam not suprised nothing good comes from Africa and to precise blackman. I know one lady from Ghana(West Africa) who is a top referee, won best referee awards and handles top matches in Ghana. Why FIFA don’t stop such a person.
This is how God wants to bless her despite her boyish structure and she has identified her God given talent.
There are many of such people in the world and if they want to know we give many of them.

Congrants our girl.

Posted by Anthony Adabla | Report as abusive

What if the genetics tests DO show that her chromosomes are not XX and she is not a ‘normal’ female? Are people of mixed sex/gender due to genetic factors beyond their control not allowed to compete in sports professionally? There are many people in the world who are XXY, XXX, XYY, X, etc. (look it up on Wiki). They should have the same rights to athletic competitions as the typical XY male and XX female. This athlete did not “cheat,” rather, she competes as the woman she was raised to be, probably oblivious to her genetic condition. Her genotype is nobody’s business but her own, and it is revolting that the sports world for making her share her internal, private, biological status with the world.

Posted by Nicole | Report as abusive

I would not say this has anything to do with Africa. This has more to do with the fact that — and this part is understandable — alarm bells came off when the athlete considerably improved her personal best by as many as eight seconds between 2008 and 2009. But when you say this a medical issue — and we have to assume that this is so since it is the IAAF who are saying this — then it should be left at that. Whatever possible athletic advantage she gains because of this medical condition is beyond her control and hence she should not be punished for it in any way. Let alone the issue becoming public.

Posted by Karolos Grohmann | Report as abusive

Didn’t she have to submit pre and post race samples for comparison? What is really going on here?…

Posted by Darrell Hitchens | Report as abusive

Question for Nicole: if Caster is not female, then against WHOM would it be fair for her to compete? Only those other people who have confused chromosomes? We could have be the XXX Olympics, the XXYY Olympics, the XYY Olympics, ad nauseam. Enough.

Posted by Ferd | Report as abusive

I agree that this should be done quietly. However, I do think her chromosomes/hormones/etc are relevant if it givers her an advantage over other competitors. We have separate races for males and females to ensure fairness.

Posted by CourtB | Report as abusive

She might have androgen insensitivity disorder and not know it. Here’s a good description of it

http://jenapincott.wordpress.com/2009/06  /01/when-the-perfect-woman-is-genetical ly-male/

Posted by ellie | Report as abusive

Viva Caster, viva. Congratulations, not only on a world class performance, but also on showing such incredible character and strength throughout this crazy witch hunt.
Thank God, we live in South Africa where our constitution values ALL people.
You have the beloved country behind you. You go GIRL!

Posted by Pietie Mackenzie | Report as abusive

Caster is a female and a very gifted one at that. Only a junior and so close to Jarmila Kratochvílová’s world record. The two athletes can be compared because of their athletic spirit – the will to win. No males here, just prodigy athletes at its best. You go girl, Caster!

Posted by Nellie Melba | Report as abusive

The excuse that her times improving by 8 seconds in a short time shows that she is a woman is not enough. I was a runner in my youth and at age 18 dropped my 1500 times by 34 seconds in 6 months. It was a lot of running 15 miles a day every day, rain, hail, sleet, or shine. This generally happens a lot at that age with runners particularly in the middle to long distance events.

Caster’s birth certificate shows that she was born a female and it is generally an easy to tell thing for doctors to make that call. If she has some genetic issue, that should not preclude her from competing as a female if she is indeed a woman. I think this testing has been blown way out of proportion by both her competitors (sore losers if I may say so) and by the IAAF who should have just shut their mouths and done the tests. But at the end of the day, they should never have embarrassed this poor girl who has done nothing but compete to the best of her abilities in front of the entire world.

Posted by PC | Report as abusive

The sex of every athlete is everybody’s business, just like their drug habits, their age, and any other criteria that is used in competitive sports. People who are up in arms concerning the testing are just afraid of the test results. There is hardly a sport that has not been marred by multiple attempts at cheating. That’s why we have the right to test everyone that presents a suspicious set of circumstances. If she is shown to be some kind of hermaphrodite, or even worse, a man brought up to think he was a “she,” than all her care-takers and sports officials involved in her career are to blame. The other suspicious thing is her own attitude. If you are a woman and you are suspected to be a man all the time, that would be surely distressing. Apparently she can care less. If you are a woman and you look in the mirror and you see the image of a grown man, that would be enough to make normal women seriously psychologically disturbed. But if you were a man, claiming to be a woman, and people suspected you were a man, what would you care?

Posted by Alessandra | Report as abusive

Alessandra, the IAAF have themselves said that this has nothing to do with cheating. They have called it “a medical issue” and so we should discuss it based on waht we know. Obviously she is not a man who was brought up to think he was a she because you do not need to run tests in medical facilities to discover that. and best if we leave her completely out of this discussion. She, just like you can behave howevcewr she likes. This is about a procedure and the fact that despite the IAAF saying this is not about cheating they conduct this gender test. What exactly do they want to prove? that because of her medical condition for which she could not have any influence over she has to give back a medal? So someone who is 2.40 has to stop playing basketball because he has an unfair advantage over some other player? His condition is also “medical.”

Posted by Karolos Grohmann | Report as abusive

“According to her mother, grandmother, headmaster and friends Semenya was raised as a girl, lives like a woman and competes like one.”

I’m not sure that statement is supported by the facts. In the story that is linked in support, the headmaster says Semenya always wore boys’ clothes and that he didn’t realize she was a girl until the 11th grade. Her friends say she’s not interested in boys. Her grandmother says Semenya was the only girl on the soccer team. Her parents reference her masculine traits. Her father even made the bizarre remark that he “never doubted” she was a girl (impliedly suggesting the possibility of doubt). The evidence we have of Semenya speaking confirms a very deep voice without any hint of feminine manner or intonation.

It would be one thing if a child, physically a girl and raised as a girl, turned out to identify as a male later in life — something which has been documented numerous times. Then mentioning the disconnect between physical appearance and behavior would be significant. Here, though, there seems to have been someone who has male physical traits, allegedly raised as a female, who nonetheless displays no typical female behavioral traits at all, either in the testimony of her friends and relatives — who emphasize maleness — or in the video evidence. In other words, a boy behaving like a boy. In light of this, the skepticism of the IAAF is not very surprising to me.

Posted by Roger | Report as abusive

Roger, the skepticism is right but the result is questionable and opens up pandora’s box of interpretations at the expense of an 18-year-old person who is not blame for any of this. You suggest that this case involves a boy “allegedly raised as a female”. That would be an open and shut case as it would only need a simple test to decide. But presumably, the IAAF, requiring the assistance of several specialist doctors, considers this issue is more complex and that is what I ma saying. Since it is not clear cut and the outcome will not be black or white, then what would be Semenya’s options in sport? Should she run with men or women, branded a ‘freak of nature’ and dropped from competitions. You are what you are — always assuming that this has nothing to do with cheating — and we leave it at that. The IAAF is a sports organisation, not one to set ehtical and moral standards on how we should live our life and play our sport, no matter how nature intended us to be.

Posted by Karolos Grohmann | Report as abusive

Karolos: and what exactly is “her” medical condition? What if “she” is in a woman category concerning some aspects of “her” body and in a male category as far as all “her” skeleton and muscle structure and hormone composition? Why should “she” be allowed to compete as a woman if “she” does not fit into a woman category as defined by the competition rules? We have two sex categories in sports for a reason. If she does not fit into either one, she is in a third category and should compete there. And what kind of athletic coach and sports official does not ask serious questions about the sex of their athletes when totally suspect circumstances appear without a doubt? The “greedy for gold” kind, that is, the ones who will cheat in any way so that their little athletes can rip off a medal. Let the tests begin and the blame fall where it should.

Posted by Alessandra | Report as abusive

Here’s reality:

We have women’s events separate from men’s events so that we can have professional female athletes. If we did not have separate events, there wouldn’t really be professional female athletes at things like the world championships – there would be only men.

If you want women to be able to be recognized for their athletic achievements, you need to ensure that they are women, as the best man is consistently better than the best woman; indeed, what is seen as a pitiful time for men on the highest level will often be seen as a very good one for women.

If she fails the gender test, then she’d have to race as a man.

Posted by Titanium Dragon | Report as abusive

IAAF has not started this case. They received a formal complaint and are under obligation to investigate.

If you want to change the rules, just say so. It is not possible to aply different rules on a case-by-case basis.

Posted by frank | Report as abusive

Athletes take tests for drugs and gender, etc it isn’t new. Everything about Semenya rings bells, regardless of her race. She should take the test. Though, I think it should have been done quietly.

Posted by Emeka | Report as abusive

@Alessandra I am sure these accusitions started way back when she was young,when people especially your family refer you be looking like a man,and you constantly teased to be looking like a man,THEN you start believing it then you start acting like a man even though you know very well that you are a woman.It hurts very much to be in a such situation for a long time that you get so used to it that you start not to care about what who says what about your gender.

If you are a man/woman and you still look like one ,and no one has ever teased you about your gender,you won’t understand how much it hurts and how demotivating that could be,most woman loose their self-worth because of this.IT HURTS SO MUCH.

We are all not perfect,so what? If Her inperfetions are just out there for people like you to see and judge as if though they are perfect?What, you want her to atart worrying about her gender and stop runnig while that it one of the things that God has given her to excell at?

Posted by Basani | Report as abusive

the iaaf has stooped so law, you argue that it is their business to test athlete’s sex just as it works for drug tasting, but does drug testing not take place before the race? why did this become an issue as soon as semenya won? if the decision was driven by defeated athletes, which is very likely , then they are surely the ones who should be embarrassed for stooping so low.

Posted by ray | Report as abusive

If her gender gives her an advantage of other females, then surely her sudden improvement is immaterial as she would have run as whatever gender the IAAF claims she is even when she was recording slow times.
The 800 metres is more of a tactical race and therefore one needs only run a time sufficient to win a race (in most cases). She came from a rural environment with basic facilities to a world class facility. She moved from an environment where she ran once in a while and played soccer in other times and fooled around with her piers at other times, to focus entirely on running.
If therefore her improvements are too extra-ordinary to believe, drug testing would most likely be applicable instead of gender testing.
Furthermore, according to the IAAF’s own rules http://www.iaaf.org/mm/Document/imported  /36983.pdf, there is nothing they can do even if they find Caster to have an unfair advantage since transgender athletes are allowed to race in the gender of the gender they have known to be their gender since puberty.

Posted by Thembalabantubonke | Report as abusive

The IAAF did not receive a formal complaint. Please state where you learned of such. IAAF received correspondence from a South African media group (suspected of being the Media 24 group). They communicated their suspicions to the IAAF. No athletes or association complained.

Posted by Thembalabantubonke | Report as abusive

Did you know that the best time within the last 2 years is by a Kenyan. She recorded the third best time of all time.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pamela_Jeli mo

Posted by Len | Report as abusive

Respectfully her/his hormone levels are way out of the normal- couple this to the stigma of an East German coach and the die is cast. Complain as much as you like about the criticism, the world will rule her to have an unfair advantage.

Posted by lilly | Report as abusive

We like it or not to take part in a woman athletics competitions only women (100% women)are allowed. Otherwise it is unfair. Gender test is to screen out those cases when a person try to sneak in or just have a genetic disorder which makes the person gender questionable. Woman has XX chromosome man has XY. This is clear, but sometime a person can have XXY so called Klinefelter’s syndrome. These individuals are combining both gender in their body and sometime this comes up on events where a very male look like person competes in the woman league.

Caster Semenya is one of the athletes on the field today who was wrongly accused with this disorder. Wrongly, not because of her race or origin, but the way as it was carried out was wrong.

Actually the ASA is to blame for its incompetent conduct. They should run this test behind the scene already years ago and they’d submit it to the IAAF when or before questions started. When it became clear it is their fault they tried to make some pathetic accuses by the race issue. In SA sometime this works. Their poor conduct made Caster in this situation

Posted by Gabor Barla | Report as abusive

I honestly think that this is being handled very poorly and is blatantly unfair to Caster Semenya. I don’t have all of the knowledge of the sport. I am just a human being who feels strongly in justice and fairplay.

Above all, Caster Semenya is a human being with feelings, hopes and dreams. To be treated this way, like cattle, an animal, is unacceptable and wrong. Lets not forget that the stigma of this entire proceeding will follow Semenya forever, regardless of the outcome.

Caster Semenya I feel for you, I am an old man living in a small town in Tennessee, USA and my heart goes out to you. Know that someone cares, and prays for you.

Posted by David VanStory | Report as abusive

Caster my dear, you’re a beautiful woman. So lets shut them all up… Send the IAAF a bloodied pad!!!

Posted by Happy_Go_Lucky | Report as abusive

The way Caster Semenya has been disrespected throughout this entire process is unfathomable. I have written about my thoughts on AAUW’s blog: http://blog-aauw.org/2009/09/17/caster-s emenya%E2%80%99s-fight-for-human-decency  /

Posted by Zabie | Report as abusive

Clearly, she has as much right to claim her female identity as anyone else on that field. Whether or not she wears dresses or has big tits shouldn’t come into play, and they definitely should have left it alone. It’s an injustice and an ugly one to be done to a young, teenage girl and her dreams.

Please read my article on Semenya: Proving It.



Posted by Nikita | Report as abusive

coach wiki…

Today Wednesday I found your article The LinkedIn Blog ” Blog Archive How you can help your kid …. Just curious: on what bases do you conclude your findings?…

Posted by coach wiki | Report as abusive