Caster Semenya was treated “poorly”, say some Canadian experts in sport and gender


SEPTEMBER 24, 2009

It was the greatest day of her life, and then it all came crashing down.

On August 19, South African runner Caster Semenya captured the gold medal in the women’s 800 metre final at the track and field world championships in Berlin.  Semenya, 18, crossed the finish line in a world-leading time of 1:55.45.

Then came the results of her sex test.

Now, Semenya is reportedly undergoing counselling, and is even on suicide watch.

The International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) has yet to announce whether Semenya will be stripped of the gold and banned from all international competition.

Canadian experts in the field of gender and sport say that the search for an acceptable and equitable solution to the conundrum that is the place for intersex athletes is far from over.

“The IAAF isn’t the only culprit in all of this,” said retired professor Helen Lenskyi, the author of several books on gender and sport.  “Everybody handled it poorly and [Semenya] has not been treated with dignity or respect.”

Even before the sex verification results leaked out to the media revealing that Semenya possesses a rare sexual anomaly known as intersex. she had already been under scrutiny for weeks by the  IAAF due to her impressive results on the 800 and 1500 metre tracks.

At the African junior championships in Mauritius in July, Semenya won the 800 metre race in 1:56.72.  These numbers, followed by her dominant performance at the world championships, prompted the IAAF to examine Semenya very closely.

According to the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, intersex occurs in approximately 0.018 per cent of the population and refers to “the atypical appearance of the external genitalia at birth where they differ from the usual development of either sex and create difficulty in sex assignment.”  In her condition, Semenya lacks ovaries while instead possessing internal testis, which allows her body to produce three times as much testosterone as a typical woman.

Dr. Trevor Corneil, president of the Canadian Professional Association for Transgender Health, works with individuals who must learn to accept sexual ambiguity.

“Any time [sex] is assessed or investigated or managed for those people who deal with developmental sexual disorders it’s a very stressful experience,” he said.

Learning to accept such dramatic life changes is very difficult, according to Corneil.  Extensive therapy is required, and Corneil explains that people who face gender questioning receive “supportive counselling or social support, sexual education and any positive types of therapy that people undergo when faced with depression.”

Sex testing has always been a humiliating ordeal for women in sport.  In 1936, after the first suspected case of sexual ambiguity was discovered at the Berlin Olympics, when sprinting champion Helen Stevenson was accused of being a man, this incidence set off nearly a century of sex verification for female athletes.

Until 1968, all women competing in the Olympics were forced to parade nude in front of an all-male genitalia examining committee.  After genetic testing was introduced in 1968, 12 women have been forced to retire from international competition because they failed the test.        Although some of these women were able to go on with their lives, others were devastated by the public exposition.  Indian runner Santhi Soundarajan, who was forced to return her silver medal at the Asian Games in 2006 after failing a sex test, was driven to attempted suicide by the overwhelming social stigma.

It wasn’t until that same year, when the IAAF Medical and Anti-Doping Commission composed it’s IAAF Policy on Gender Verification.  According to the IAAF, the document’s purpose is “to establish a policy and mechanism for managing the issue of gender amongst participants in women’s events.”

To simplify the issue of ambiguous sex, the IAAF has designated gender verification as a national responsibility.  The association’s Policy on Gender Verification states that “the verdict is passed on to the national federation with advice for further action including appropriate advice to the athlete as the need to ‘withdraw’ from competition until the problem is definitively resolved through appropriate medical and surgical measures.”

Sarah Teetzel, professor of kinesiology and recreation management at the University of Manitoba, an expert on issues of gender and ethics in sport, sees the surgery option as a positive development.

“The International Olympic Committee’s statement on sex reassignment is quite progressive for an international organization….considering how much opposition a statement of this nature would face in many of the countries represented by IOC members,” she said. “In countries where women do not have rights equal to men, recognizing transsexual individuals and permitting transsexual athletes to compete at the elite level is still many steps away.”

Even so, Lenskyj finds positives to bringing issues of sexually anomalous people into the open.

“It certainly raises people’s awareness that gender isn’t that clear cut and the more we know thanks to scientific research, the more complicated it gets,” she said.  “Hopefully one day there will be less emphasis on the two polar opposites – men and women – that people will understand that there are differences in between.”

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