It is unfortunate that the athletic brilliance of Caster Semenya has been undermined by the gender saga. What should have been a moment to savour has turned into a sex inquisition. A lot has been said and accusations have been thrown back and forth but this young woman’s welfare has, to date, been hugely ignored.
I do not for a moment query the principle of sex tests neither do I question the reasons for the need to verify her sex. The IAAF maintained throughout that there was no suspicion of cheating on the part of Miss Semenya. It is also understandable that experts would query the huge improvement in her time within a short period of time. Furthermore Miss Semenya is not the first woman to undergo a sex test in women athletics.
The only difference with the previous tests is that for the other women privacy had been maintained. Basically, the handling of the case was shambolic, unprofessional and disrespectful of this young woman. My question is who is to blame for the fiasco? In this article I will discuss the deceit, selfishness, and incompetency of Athletics South Africa (ASA) as well as the inefficiency and lack of professionalism within the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF). I will also look at the dilemma of media freedom and the question of ethics. Last but not least where should intersex people compete? Should we create a separate category for them? In any case how manly or womanly should an individual be for them to be allowed entry into a competition in either category?
To begin with, I want to emphasise that there is no question about Miss Semenya’s gender: she is a girl, she was brought up a girl; if there were any suspicions, they were about her sex and it is now widely believed that she is an intersex. Intersex or hermaphrodism is a broad medical term ‘…for a variety of diagnoses where a person is born with ambiguous reproductive or sexual anatomy that does not fit the typical definition of male or female’ (The Canterbury Intersex Group, 2009 cited in The Telegraph, 2009).
Gender ‘refers to socially constructed roles, behaviours, activities, and attributes that a given society considers appropriate for men and women’ while sex is defined as ‘the biological and physiological characteristics that define men and women’ (WHO, n.d.). Miss Semenya, it can be argued, does not particularly resemble a typical woman in that she bears no breasts, has a deep voice and her physique is more masculine (however, one has to bear in mind that she is an athlete!). Despite her physical appearance, she believed she was and probably felt like a woman all her life.
Assigning a sex to a baby is not always as easy as it seems to an untrained eye. According to Dr Bowen-Simpkins of the Royal Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, there are four types of sex, the phenotype which is what one looks like, the psychological sex which is about what an individual feels like (this is usually the same as the phenotype sex), the gonadal sex which is whether one has ovaries or testicles and then the chromosomal sex which is what combination of x and y chromosomes an individual has. Probably most babies are assigned their sex on the basis of the phenotype. It is therefore highly likely that a person’s view of their gender may be different from their biological sex which is probably the case with Miss Semenya.
When questions were raised about Miss Semenya’s gender, the IAAF demanded tests for clarification. The tests were requested a good three weeks before the World Championships in Berlin (BBC, 2009) and probably reservations were raised about her continued participation in women’s events without a scientific determination of her sex. Yet the ASA chief, Mr Leonard Chuene, insisted that there were no concerns about Miss Semenya’s sex arguing, ‘We would not have entered her in a female competition if we had any doubts’ (Telegraph, 2009). As we now know the tests were carried out and they did confirm Miss Semenya was an intersex which led to the team doctor, Harold Adams advising Mr Chuene to have Miss Semenya withdrawn from the competition (Telegraph, 2009).
It has to be noted that Miss Semenya was never made aware of the true nature and purpose of the tests carried on her. I find both unethical and repulsive, a breach of the young woman’s human rights. ASA authorities were guilty of incompetency driven by selfishness; to the association Miss Semenya guaranteed a gold medal and her withdrawal was too high a price to pay thus the lies given to the international media. Mr Chuene affirmed,
‘At no stage did [the] IAAF come to us procedurally…and say…we need you to withdraw the child because of that [gender concerns]’ (Guardian, 2009).
Yes, they were told and yes they knew Miss Semenya should not have competed. On the basis of ASA’s misinformation, the case dragged on with some senior South African politicians weighing in with accusations of racism and insensivity thrown at the IAAF. The truth is that ASA were responsible for Miss Semenya going to Berlin when there was clearly an outstanding concern about her sex.
Once the young woman was in Berlin, I think the IAAF was guilty of incompetency from allowing Miss Semenya to compete in the first place to leaking the information about gender concerns and tests. Miss Semenya should never have been allowed to compete because ASA had not met IAAF’s demands for a gender test. It is rather unprofessional and embarrassing for such a reputable organization to fail to protect the privacy of its athletes. Who leaked the details of the case? Once Miss Semenya was allowed to run the matter should have been left until the end of the competition as the complexity of the tests meant the result could not be immediately available to enable an objective decision to withdraw Miss Semenya.
The insensitivity of the media has been disappointing. While I support media freedom, I do believe the media has to impose self-restraint in some cases. Extracting information by covert or other illicit ways may be justifiable in matters where the integrity of the sport or safety of the wider society is threatened. In this case there was no evidence of a deliberate attempt by the athlete to cheat and there was certainly no security risk to the public or other athletes.
There is intense competition among media for tasty news and for being the first to break the news. Journalists are under pressure to come up with exclusive stories and are thus, at times, prepared to sacrifice media ethics to achieve that. How ethical is revealing privileged information, obtained without transparency? It was grossly irresponsible for the media to break the story a few hours before the competition as if to try to force a withdrawal by applying pressure on an athlete. If the athlete involved were European and posed a real threat of a lawsuit would the journalist have published the information just because it had been thrown onto his lap? One wonders why the experienced journalist did not take time to verify his ‘finding’ with ASA before publicizing the story.
There is perhaps an agent need to clarify what qualifies someone to be a female and who should be competing in women’s events. Is it morally acceptable to deny people the right to participate in social activities because of their sex composition? There cannot possibly be a sporting event specifically for intersex people without stigmatizing the condition. Besides it is not feasible both because of the low population of intersex people and because the sex orientation is not necessarily the same, some people are more male than they are female and vice versa.
Should intersex people compete with disabled people? I do not believe that is even worth considering, they are not disabled and they will have an unfair advantage. Do they have an unfair advantage when they compete with people of the sex they are comfortable with? That needs scientific research to prove if the advantage is unfair and in any case what constitutes a fair advantage? Is Bolt’s advantage over other men fair or unfair; if he were intersex would he be withdrawn from men’s events? I believe intersex people who are brought up as a particular gender should be allowed to compete with that sex. Dr Genel argues that women who are born and raised as females before the onset of puberty ‘should be allowed to compete in women’s events…’ (The Huffington Post, 2009).
Miss Semenya’s case has highlighted significant failings within the South African athletics system and it does raise major questions about leadership and accountability within ASA. The fact that Miss Semenya was not even briefed prior to undergoing tests reveals a lack of professionalism and a possible breach of medical ethics. I think South Africa comes out worst in this debacle; there are obviously no checks and balances in the system. The chief of ASA is an authority unto himself, can ignore expert advice if he chooses. In keeping with ASA’s low moral standards, Mr Chuene was recently given a vote of confidence by his peers. The IAAF was also exposed as indecisive and lacking in its professionalism and possibly leadership by failing to protect an athlete that it had allowed to compete despite its affliate (ASA) failing to comply with agreed demands. The other issue that needs addressing is balancing media freedom, accountability and respect of individual privacy and dignity. Journalists cannot be allowed to pursue personal glory at the expense of other people’s welfare.