Friday, September 11, 2009

Caster Semenya: my 2p worth

In the furore following the news that Caster Semenya possesses the external genitalia of a woman but internal testes instead of a uterus or ovaries, I would just like to make my views known. Whether or not they make any difference remains to be seen. But one of the points of social media is that they serve as an aggregation of many views. Mine are as valid as anyone else's.

The South African government is making protests about the whole incident being both racist and sexist. This is a view supported by many South Africans in the various discussion forums on this topic.

I do not see this issue as being racist. Track events at international level are currently dominated by black people (I am told that this can be attributed to a genetic predisposition towards heightened fast twitch something or other). Semenya has not been singled out because of her race. The woman who came second is also black. She is also African. It is true, she is from a different African country (Kenya), but I don't think that would make a difference to anyone who was being racist about this. So if Semenya is stripped of her title, it will not further anyone's racist cause.

With regard to the sexism aspect...

If we want to play the sexist card, then we need to decide where the line is going to be drawn and that takes us into very grey territory. Is it sexist to say that men can't run in women's races? If so, then there needs to be just one 800m race in which men and women compete against each other. That day may come, but for now, there would be no women in that event. If then, we agree that it is right ot separate the two, we need to have a definition of what constitutes each gender. A line needs to be drawn somewhere. I think many people have been taken by surprise to learn that gender is far more of a continuum than they had previously imagined.

It is tragic for Semenya and any others like her that a quirk of nature puts them outside of the definition of woman (if indeed it does - this still has to be decided). As far as I know, no-one is vilifying the poor girl, or accusing her of any wrongdoing.

Let us look for a moment at a parallel situation: in the paralympics, athletes compete based on the extent of their (dis)ability. So an athlete who is missing just one foot would not be allowed to compete on level terms against an athlete who is missing both legs. Through no fault of his own, the former has attributes that provide an unfair advantage over the latter.

I am deeply sorry for Semenya. I think she has conducted herself with dignity throughout what must have been an embarrassing ordeal. To learn about this anomaly in the full glare of the world's press must be harrowing indeed. Not only that, but she now probably faces a future in which there is no event in which she can compete in the sport she loves. She is too much of a woman to be able to achieve anything remarkable against men, but she is too much of a man to be allowed to run against women.

And there's nothing she can do about it. If that doesn't tug at your heart strings, I don't know what would.

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