My favorite sports writer (after J's Theater)...
...Dave Zirin, that is... from
The Nation, 21 August 2009...
Caster Semenya and the Idiocy
of Sex Testing
By Dave Zirin & Sherry Wolf
on August 19. But her victory was all the more remarkable in
that she was forced to run amid a controversy that reveals the
twisted way international track and field views gender.
(photo, Wolfgang Rattay/Reuters: Janeth Jepkosgei Busienei of Kenya, left,
Caster Semenya of South Africa and Jennifer Meadows of Britain display
their medals from the women's 800 meters at the world championships
on Wednesday [August 19, 2009]).
The sports world has been buzzing for some time over the rumor that Semenya
may be a man,or more specifically, not"entirely female." According to the
newspaper The Age, her "physique and powerful style have sparked
speculation inrecent months that she maynot be entirely female." From all
accounts an arduous process of "gender testing" on Semenya has already
begun. The idea that an 18-year-old who has just experienced the greatest
athletic victory of her life is being subjecting to this very public humiliation
is shameful to say the least. Her own coach Michael Seme contributed to
the disgracewhen he said, "We understand that people will ask questions
because she looks like a man. It's a natural reaction and it's only human
to be curious. People probably have the right to ask such questions if
they are in doubt. But I can give you the telephone numbers of her
roommates in Berlin. They have already seen her naked in the showers
and she has nothing to hide."
The people with something to hide are the powers that be in track and
field, as well as in international sport. As long as there have been womens'
sports, the characterization of the best female athletes as "looking like men"
or "mannish" has consistently been used to degrade them. When Martina
Navratilova dominated women's tennis and proudly exposed her chiseled
biceps years before Hollywood gave its imprimatur to gals with "guns,"
players complained that she "must have a chromosome loose somewhere."
This minefield of sexism and homophobia has long pushed female
athletes into magazines like Maxim to prove their "hotness"--and
implicitly their heterosexuality. Track and field in particular has always
had this preoccupation with gender, particularly when it crosses paths
with racism. Fifty years ago, Olympic official Norman Cox proposed that
in the case of black women, "the International Olympic Committee
should create a special category of competition for them--
the unfairly advantaged 'hermaphrodites.'"
For years, women athletes had to parade naked in front of Olympic
officials. This has now given way to more"sophisticated" "gender testing"
to determine if athletes like Semenya have what officials still perceive
as the ultimate advantage--being a man. Let's leave aside that being
male is not the be-all, end-all of athletic success. A country's
wealth, coaching facilities, nutrition and opportunity determine
the creation of a world-class athlete far more than a Y chromosome
or a penis ever could.
What these officials still don't understand, or will not confront,
is that gender--that is, how we comport and conceive of ourselves--is
a remarkably fluid social construction. Even our physical sex is far
more ambiguous and fluid than is often imagined or taught. Medical
science has long acknowledged the existence of millions of people
whose bodiescombine anatomical features that are conventionally
associated with either men or women and/or have chromosomal
variations from the XX or XY of women or men. Many of these
"intersex" individuals, estimated at one birth in every 1,666 in the
United States alone, are legally operated on by surgeons who force
traditional norms of genitalia on newborn infants. In what some
doctors consider a psychosocial emergency, thousands of healthy
babies are effectively subject to clitorectomies if a clitoris is "too large"
or castrations if a penis is "too small" (evidently penises are never
considered "too big").
The physical reality of intersex people calls into question the fixed
notions we are taught to accept about men and women in general,
and men and women athletes in sex-segregated sports like track and
field in particular. The heretical bodies of intersex people challenge
the traditional understanding of gender as a strict male/female
phenomenon. While we are never encouraged to conceive of bodies
this way, male and female bodies are more similar than they are
distinguishable from each other. When training and nutrition are
equal, it is increasingly difficult to tell the difference between some
of the best-trained male and female Olympic swimmers wearing
state-of-the-art one-piece speed suits. Title IX, the 1972 law imposing
equal funding for girls' and boys' sports in schools, has radically altered
not only women's fitness and emotional well-being, but their bodies as
well. Obviously, there are some physical differences between men and
women, but it is largely our culture and not biology that gives them
In 1986 Spanish hurdler Maria José Martínez-Patiño was stripped
of her first-placewinnings when discovered to have an XY chromosome,
instead of the female's XX,which shattered her athletic career and
upended her personal life. "I lost friends, my fiancé, hope and energy,"
said Martínez-Patiño in a 2005 editorial in the journal The Lancet.
Whatever track and field tells us Caster Semenya's gender is--
and as of this writing there is zero evidence she is intersex--it's
time we all break free from the notion that you are either "one or
the other." It's antiquated, stigmatizing and says far more
about those doing the testing than about the athletes tested.
The only thing suspicious is the gender and sex bias in
professional sports. We should continue to debate the
pros and cons of gender segregation in sport. But right here,
right now, we must end sex testing and acknowledge the fluidity
of gender and sex in sports and beyond.
[Dave Zirin is the author of A People's History of Sports
in the United States (The New Press) Receive his column every
week by emailing email@example.com.
Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.]
[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
October march for Marriage Equality in Washington DC]
• "Gold Awarded Amid Dispute Over Runner’s Sex" 20 August 2009, NYT.
• "Inquiry About Runner Angers South Africans" 25 August 2009, NYT
My favorite pull-quote from this article. I read this over the back of a seat
while on the train to NY and had to find the article:
"We are not going to allow Europeans to define
and describe our children.” said Leonard Chuene,
the president of Athletics South Africa,
speaking about the case of Caster Semenya."
• "Runner Caster Semenya has heard the gender comments all her life"
LA Times reporting from Johannesburg, South Africa, 21 August 2009