You know the story already. 18 year old Mokgadi Caster Semenya won gold in
the 800m competition at the World Athletics Championship in Berlin: shaving off
a substantial part of her former record, and emerging the fastest woman in the
800m. But while the world erupted in admiration for Usain Bolt, this one's
taken into a room and almost stripped of her clothing.
The reason is simple: some people think she was too good to be a girl.
Evidently, analysis prior to the championships and massive gallops on Semenya's
part prompted calls for a gender test from the sport's governing body: if she
was that good, she had to be a man. Not surprisingly, her South African
compatriots, especially the ANC (which increasingly sounds like the PDP) have
cried foul: It is because she's black! It is because she's African! But that's
The problem here is actually more complicated. The problem is that some feel
Semenya shouldn't have been competing with the girls because she's a boy. They
say it's unfair competition. Girls can't compete with boys! Girls can't run as
fast as boys! If a boy is in a race with a girl, it's unfair to the girls! It's
very confusing to me how this double standard argument is even legitimate in
The South African Student's Union is on to something. "Women still have a
lot to fight for… this is a case of sexism, it's surprising this kind of
barbaric act is coming from a so-called civilised society," said one of
their leaders, Sandile Phakathi. But, reading between the lines, it seems even
they don't grasp the dimensions of this issue; only reaching for as many ‘isms'
as they can get – Racism! Sexism! Ugly-ism! – to shut the world up and protect
the girl. However this isn't about Semenya, it is about women.
Yes, she is muscular; yes she has a deep voice, a moustache and facial hair.
But that wasn't the reason the International Association of Athletic
Federations (IAAF) pulled her aside for a series of tests. Indeed, no one would
have been concerned about the fact that she looks more like Mike Tyson than
Marion Jones if she hadn't run so fast. If she had run ‘like other girls', she
would have been fine. The reason she was singled out is because she ran faster
than is expected of a girl.
Of course everyone is aware on some subliminal level that there is something
seriously wrong with this set up, even the IAAF – which is why it's language
has been tenuous and contradictory. When you start using ‘extremely difficult',
‘complex', and ‘exhaustive' to describe something as simple as checking out if
a person is male or female, you know say mago mago wan enter. Over more than
two months, they will be using a gynecologist, endocrinologist, psychologist,
an internal medicine specialist and a gender expert.
So one wonders, what if the gynaecologists see ovaries, but the psychologist
says she thinks like a man? Smoke and mirrors. It gets more sinister. These
tests will not just be physical; they will also be biological – testing
everything from genitalia to genital marks. So her outsides might be female,
but what about the insides? The suggestion is clear – even if she's a female
outside, to have run so fast she just has to be male inside.
The IAAF says it doesn't suspect her of cheating; it's only trying to find
out if she has a "rare medical condition". Like what? Oestrogen?
Ovarie s? Um, a vagina? The medical condition of being female. That's a new
What have we done to genetic freaks like NBA basketball star, Ming Yao, whose
7'6" frame clearly gives him an advantage over his competitors? Should
basketball players like him be checked for mutations of the NSD-1 gene, which
can cause gigantism? How about effeminate males? Do we test the man that wins a
hairdressing competition to find out if he is more woman than man?
We need to get this: this girl didn't actually break any world records; she
didn't do anything a man has not done. Where does the IAAF get off saying it
wants to determine whether Semenya's "conditions … accord no advantage
over other females" – this so-called advantage being the fact that,
eureka, she is male? How is it an unfair advantage for men to compete with
women? I thought this was why Larry Summers was pushed out of Harvard? Summers
suggested in a 2005 speech that women's under-representation in the top levels
of academia is due to a "different availability of aptitude at the high
At the time, there was a consensus that even the suggestion of a difference
between the sexes was beyond the pale. So what's the distinction here? That a
certain discrimination is fine – as long as it isn't intellectual? Then perhaps
we should re-negotiate the hard-fought concept of gender equality.
What is even more frightening is the fact that her accusers are reportedly her
girl co-contestants. According to the editor of The Sowetan (a SA paper), some
of them are Ghanaian girls. The implication is clear; these young girls are
saying: if she's so fast she can't be a woman like us. They are hoping that the
gender tests will render her ineligible to compete with the girls: ‘let her go
and run with her mates who can be as fast as her' i.e. boys. It takes girl
fights to a whole new level, but a level that will hurt each and every girl.
Last thing we hear, tests have revealed Caster Semenya's testosterone level
to be three times higher than those normally expected in a female sample. For
the sake of world peace, it better turn out that this is false alarm. The
reason is simple: the debate, such as there is, is still muted because we all
assume she is being wrongly maligned. It will be a shame if the only thing this
goes to prove is that boys and girls are indeed not in the same league. The
girl team needs this victory badly.
By Chude Jideonwo