Jo Proctor: “Caster Semenya, post-mortem of a debacle”

Jo Proctor

Photo: Karin.

If the International Amateur Athletics Federation’s (IAAF) terse three sentence statement, issued on the sixth of July, is anything to go by, the organization is determined to close down any further discussion of the Caster Semenya debacle.

This was issued following two ‘false starts’ from the IAAF – one in May 2010 and the second a month later on June 10. Both of these were cancelled when the IAAF revealed that they had been unable to reach a decision.

In brief, the IAAF’s July statement indicated complete acceptance of a report from their own medical experts, who had by then finally cleared the athlete to compete. They concluded with the statement that any medical details were to, “… remain confidential and the IAAF will make no further comment on the matter.”

This is too little too late! From the moment the case hit the headlines it was appallingly mismanaged. Looking back over the past eleven months, no institution and no organization emerges with any honour.

Although simmering on the media back-burner for months, the story broke globally following Semenya’s blinding victory in the 800 metre woman’s race at the amateur athletics world championships in Berlin during August 2009.

Less than three weeks later, on September 11th, the Sydney Morning Herald ran a story it had picked up from The Daily Telegraph. It was the Herald’s cruder reportage that would set the global trend when its sports section ran the headline, Secret of Semenya’s sex stripped bare!

“The world champion 800m runner Caster Semenya has been revealed to have male and female sexual organs…. Medical reports indicate she has no ovaries, but rather has internal male testes, which are producing large amounts of testosterone,” declared journalist Jacquelin Magnay.

This was one of the few times the word ‘intersex’ was used in relation to the athlete’s alleged intersex state. But putting that issue to one side for the moment, the claims made by the Herald were not, and have never been denied by the IAAF.

When it came, the Federation’s response was to adopt a ‘wait and see’ approach whilst neither confirming nor denying the Herald’s claims.

“The IAAF can state that statements in the Australian press should be treated with caution as they are not official statements by the IAAF.

“We have received the results from Germany, but they now need to be examined by a group of experts and we will not be in a position to speak to the athlete about them for at least a few weeks. After that, depending on the results, we will meet privately with the athlete to discuss further action,” reported Britain’s Guardian the following day.

It was neither a ringing rejection nor direct rebuttal and it paved the way for a further eleven months of speculation and conjecture in the world’s media. Claims that the runner produced three times the standard level of testosterone for females appeared in the Sydney Daily Telegraph five weeks later. The Daily Telegraph article claimed to have inside information on test results, carried out in South Africa several weeks before the Berlin event. Athletics South Africa (ASA) President, Leonard Chuene, first denied the existence of any such tests, then resigned a few weeks later after admitting they had.

Chuene refused to either confirm or deny the results claimed in The Daily Telegraph, thereby exciting more media speculation. That could hardly have been less well informed. Perhaps initiated by the IAAF, perhaps a decision taken by the media itself, there was a clear attempt to sanitize the topic by replacing the word ‘sex’ with the word ‘gender.’

This had two effects. Firstly it erased the clear intersex issues that lay at the core of the story, and secondly it promulgated a torrent of misinformation and misconception into the public domain.

It wasn’t until the issue had almost run its course that some media outlets began to use terms such as ‘sex testing’ and ‘intersex.’ Like the IAAF before them, it was too little and too late!

For the benefit of all:

  1. If you want to conduct a gender test you will need to observe the way an individual assimilates themselves and functions in the cultural and social milieu they have been raised in. Does she or he adopt the male or female clothing, role and social expectations of their particular culture and/or religion? Gender is learned and for females can vary widely – for example, as between the burkha on one hand, or the bikini on the other. It is quite possible to change gender without changing sex. As a consequence gender is not a reliable indicator of sex.
  2. If you want to find out what sex an individual is (ie, conduct a sex test) then you will need to examine their biological make-up. That is not as simple as it seems. You might, for example, believe that sex can be determined simply by examining an individual’s chromosomes – believing that xx = female or xy = male. However, in the case of complete androgen insensitivity (CAIS) it is perfectly possible for a female baby to be born with xy chromosomes. Partial androgen insensitivity (PAIS) can create degrees of physical femaleness and congenital adrenal hyperplasia (CAH) in a developing fetus may just as easily result in a male with xx chromosomes. There are even rare examples of females with xy chromosomes carrying a pregnancy to term and giving natural birth, or in the case of children, having that reproductive potential to do so.

The distinction between sex and gender aught, by now, be obvious. Gender is either learned or acquired; sex is biologically determined. All of the examples used in the last paragraph are intersex, that is to say they possess, at birth, an admixture of biological, physiological or reproductive characteristics that would normally be attributed specifically only to one or other sex.

Caster Semenya, as a female, was accused of possessing biologically male attributes – a clear issue of intersex – which, according to her accusers, gave her an unfair advantage. Although she has been cleared fit to race “as a female” it is still by no means clear what, if any, surgical or other medical intervention has taken place to remove those so-called ‘advantages.’

This question still hangs over the entire affair and it will not go away merely because the IAAF has refused further comment.

On the 9th of July, in The Daily Telegraph, Caster Semenya failed an attempt to run 1 minute and 32 seconds over 600 metres. Her record setting run in Berlin to win the 800 metres was 1 min 55.45 sec. Journalist Mike Hurst, who covered the story writes “… there still is little comprehension in the Republic [South Africa] as to why the matter took so long to resolve.”

According to The Daily Telegraph sources close to the case, there were two reasons – one, that lawyers working on a pro bono basis for Semenya were threatening to sue the IAAF for breach of privacy and the legal argument was protracted and arduous; and two, that eventually it was agreed that Semenya could receive medical intervention – almost certainly in the form of hormone supplementation including the taking of estrogen.

The fact that the IAAF has permitted Semenya to return to women’s competition indicates that the federation’s medical commission is satisfied that, at least from a hormonal aspect, the advantage she enjoyed from a high level of testosterone has been “normalized.”

Most OII members have personal experience with the medical profession’s erratic moral and ethical compass when it comes to intersex issues. It is quite common for dubious statistical ‘evidence’ to be used to pressure parents into allowing surgical intervention on their intersex babies. All too often that surgery either goes bad, or no real benefit can be attributed to it in later life.

It seems unlikely that pharmaceutical intervention alone would be sufficient to ‘normalize’ the athlete in the eyes the medical ‘experts.’ They will, as always, have their minds fastened on surgically removing the organs they regard as disordered and which they find so offensive.

Only time will tell whether the surgeons and the doctors have succeeded in taming Caster Semenya’s flying feet and pumping arms. Or whether the wild, wild joy of winning has been stolen from her forever. One thing thing we do know is this – that which has been taken from her can never be restored.