The newly crowned 800m world champion, whose gender has been questioned, has thus far handled an extremely traumatic situation with poise and dignity.
Girls and boys, women and men, compete separately in most sports. The reason is simple: Males are generally bigger, stronger, and faster than females and therefore have a competitive advantage over them in most sports. For example, a male who is capable of running 800 meters in 1:55.45 might be the 10th-best high school middle-distance runner in his state, while a woman capable of running that fast is an almost sure bet to be world champion.
The practice of separating the genders in athletic competition is so ubiquitous that it is nearly invisible to us at most times. We only cease to take it for granted on those rare occasions when it is somehow breached. Last week the whole world became conscious of the tradition of gender separation in sports when 18-year-old South African runner Caster Semenya utterly destroyed her competition in the final of the world track and field championships women’s 800m final in Berlin, even as the International Amateur Athletics Federation was performing a gender verification test on her in response to charges that Semenya is not female.
The results of these tests will not be known for weeks, and even then they may resolve little. What seems clear even now is that Semenya is no cheater – not a male athlete who has knowingly disguised his gender to compete against women with an unfair biological advantage. When Semenya was born in 1991 in a poor village in a northern province of South Africa, she appeared female and her gender was recorded as female on her birth certificate. She was raised as a girl and apparently always felt like a girl (which is significant, as one’s psychological sense of gender is actually considered as a critical component in the determination of gender).
Although it is reported that Semenya has been teased and ridiculed throughout her life on account of her masculine features – including muscularity, a deep voice and hirsuteness – her gender never would have become the worldwide focus of attention that it has become if she had not also been a gifted runner. There were no calls for gender verification when she ran 800 meters in 2:04.23 last year. Only when she broke out to become the best half-miler in the world within the past few months did others begin to see themselves as victims of Semenya’s ambiguous gender, and to react accordingly.
A complaint was filed with the IAAF after Semenya ran an astonishing time of 1:56.72 in winning the African Junior Championships 800 meters. In early August the IAAF ordered Semenya to submit to gender verification testing, but the international governing body allowed her to compete in the world championships pending the results.
Even if Semenya is found to be biologically intersex (meaning that she has elements of both male and female gender), her continued participation in IAAF-sanctioned events as a female may still be possible, depending on the exact type of intersex condition that is discovered.
If this should happen, resentment against Semenya may build. Think about it: She is only 18 years old, and she completely dominated the rest of the best in the world at 800 meters. She could very well win championships and break records for another ten years. How will the current and up-and-coming generation of women half-milers react to such a monopolization of their event by an individual who perhaps possesses a special biological advantage that is not so different from that which definitively female athletes achieve through the use of steroids? Thus far the reaction has been savagely negative. Competitors including the Russian women who finished fifth and sixth behind Semenya in the 800m final have already gone on record with comments disparaging Semenya as a knowingly cheating male athlete.
How will fans of athletics react to a decade of dominance in the women’s 800 meters (and perhaps eventually the 1500m) by an intersex competitor? That may depend to some degree on how Semenya comports herself. While the public is quick to condemn figures that defy accepted norms, in the long run we tend to eventually embrace norm-defying figures that remain true to themselves despite intense social pressure to conform. Consider the example of Cassius Clay/Muhammad Ali, who, as the first trash-talking African-American champion athlete, was once the most hated man in America, but who in refusing to change became the most beloved man in the world (according to more than one survey).
It is early yet; the world does not know Caster Semenya well. But there are hints that we may have another unbreakable spirit on our hands; a champion athlete with a powerful will for authenticity. After crossing the finish line seemingly miles ahead of her nearest rival in the 800m final in Berlin, Semenya flexed her biceps – a classically male style of celebration. The gesture may have struck some as the defiance of an unrepentant cheater. But the look in Semenya’s eyes was not defiant. It was half-proud, half-bewildered; the same look you might see in the eyes of any 18-year-old who won a world championship in a poisoned atmosphere. Perhaps, in flexing her biceps, Caster was just being herself – a rather masculine female. And perhaps, if she insists on continuing to be herself, Caster may transform from a freak show and object of scorn and ridicule into a widely praised symbol of strength and dignity.