Caster Semenya showed up to race in Stellenbosch, South Africa, this week and the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) wouldn’t let her run. Before we get into the specifics, let’s take a moment to appreciate the courage involved in her simple desire to compete. Imagine walking in the woods during hunting season dressed as a deer. Now you can understand what Caster Semenya has chosen to risk. She was inviting fire. The 19-year-old world record-holding runner arrived at Stellenbosch to announce her return to competitive running even though she was on suicide watch last fall. Even though she was the subject of many heartless attacks. Even though she was a bull’s-eye for every bigot in and out of the sports world.
Semenya’s "crime" is that, like millions of others, she might be intersex. That is, she is suspected of having a common sex variation, which in her case may include internal testes and/or a chromosomal variation. Her incredibly fast times, the tenor of her voice and her musculature led to an antediluvian hysteria. After complaints from losing competitors and sports bloggers, Semenya was subjected to gender testing involving a gynecologist and an endocrinologist. And for some reason, a psychologist.
Unverified results of her gender tests were leaked to the press claiming that her body is gender-variant.
As Semenya said this week in a statement, this entire process led to an "unwarranted and invasive scrutiny of the most intimate and private details of my being." Despite submitting Semenya to a battery of tests on the belief that the controversy would be quelled, the IAAF never brought the process to a conclusion or released official results from the testing.
Perhaps they were hoping that the level of humiliation would force Semenya to recede from public view and the entire issue would go away. But instead, as Semenya said, she was withdrawing her "begrudging agreement" not to compete because the ordeal had "dragged on for far too long with no reasonable certainty as to their end."
She also said, "Some of the occurrences leading up to and immediately following the Berlin world championships have infringed on not only my rights as an athlete but also my fundamental and human rights, including my rights to dignity and privacy…. I am an athlete first and foremost and it is vital for my competitiveness, my well-being and for my preparations for events during the European summer that I measure my performance against other athletes."
Seven months after this young world-class athlete endured public torment, Semenya is back swinging with an elegant defiance that matches her prowess on the track.
Semenya said that "after three formal attempts by my legal advisers to make contact with the IAAF on my behalf, the IAAF had still not responded to my overtures. I requested my legal advisers to prevail upon the government to open negotiations with the IAAF by sending an emissary to negotiate a fair and equitable settlement of this matter…. The outcome of that lengthy process was the pronouncement that I was not guilty of any wrongdoing or cheating and that I was entitled to keep my gold medal, my prize money (which has now been paid to me) and my ranking as the number- one female athlete in the world over the female 800-meter event."
Despite all of this, they still won’t let her race.
Let’s allow, for a moment, that the news of Semenya’s intersexuality is true. That like millions of people in the world–and at least 1 in 2,000 in the United States–she has ambiguous internal sex organs and/or a perfectly common chromosomal variation.
What is really at stake here, aside from the persecution of a young athlete? Lurking beneath the salacious coverage is the sports world’s underlying ethic–women are inferior to men.
The notion that there is an enormous physical gulf between men and women’s athletic abilities is rarely questioned. No male athletes are tested to see if they are intersex because maleness is considered the physical gold standard against which women must be judged. Silly details like what happens when attempts are made at leveling the playing field between the sexes are ignored. For example, the 1988 Olympic record in the women’s 400-meter freestyle swim would have beaten all men’s times before the 1972 Olympics. In cross-country skiing, where endurance, strength and agility are key, the women’s Olympic record of the fifteen-kilometer race in 1994 would have beaten all men’s before 1992. In the thirty-kilometer race, the women’s Olympic time in 1992 would have beaten all men’s times in previous 30-kilometer races, according to the Women’s Sports Foundation.
In fact, the only time a man was discovered to have posed as a woman in international competition was at the 1936 Olympics. Hermann Artjen, forced by the Nazis to compete as a woman, came in fourth in the women’s high jump.
These accomplishments, and many others like them, are even more incredible considering the inferior expectations and pervasive unequal social conditioning of female athletes. Gender bias in sports has been studied in children’s T-ball where boys hitting off a T are coached and corrected, while girls are largely ignored–poor athletic performance is expected and goes uncorrected. The attacks on Semenya reveal just how key a role sport plays not in reflecting real physical differences between men and women in strength, speed and endurance but in constructing and maintaining gender and sex norms. Under the current set-up, we can only conjecture about the physical competitiveness of men and women in a society where all things were truly equal.
In pushing past a global media torrent of abuse, Semenya has proven that she is not simply a powerful runner but a fierce advocate for human rights. We should demand an end to these inhumane and sexist gender tests. We should also demand that Semenya be allowed to race. Let Caster run!
[Dave Zirin is the author of the forthcoming “Bad Sports: How Owners are Ruining the Games we Love” (Scribner) Receive his column every week by emailing
[Sherry Wolf is an independent journalist the author of the new critically praised book Sexuality and Socialism (Haymarket Books). She is currently organizing for the LGBT National Equality March for full civil rights in October.]