Sunday, 23 August 2009

Of pears and potatoes

Last week, reader GenderBender slapped me with a fish (figuratively, I mean) and demanded that I write about Caster Semenya. Even though I did end up writing a few words, at the time that she asked, I hadn't planned to cover the issue(s), because so many people already had. So I invited her to channel all her outrage here as our second in a distinguished line of guest bloggers. With a flourish and small marching band, I give you GenderBender:

When the Mongoose asked me to guest blog in this space, my first reaction was “Who me?” I’m neither a recognized blogger nor do I consider myself as having anything noteworthy to say. But that instinctual modesty was immediately replaced by the fiery, indignant “And why not me?” I’m female and enraged on behalf of another female whom I’ve never even met.The case of Caster Semenya, the South African runner who obliterated her competition to win gold in the 800metres at the World Athletic Championships in Berlin, has worried me, haunted my thoughts and upset my equilibrium. The socio-political levels upon which the issue has been pathetically mishandled by the International Amateur Athletics Association pale in comparison to the emotional and psychological impact it must have and will continue to have on the 18-year old Caster for many years to come

For those of you who have not followed the World Championships, allow me to bring you up to speed. Caster Semenya grew up in relative obscurity in the tiny, bush-ringed village of Masehlong. A sporty young woman who ran, played soccer and was a member of the wrestling team at the Nthema Secondary School, Semenya is now a first-year sports science student at Pretoria University. Nothing in her life training on dirt tracks and sharing meals with her four sisters and one brother could have prepared her for the catapulting into the international media spotlight after her gender was questioned. Yes, you read right. On July 31st at the African Junior Championships, Caster shaved a phenomenal four seconds off her 800 metre time (1:56:72 from her previous personal best of 2:00:58). That, coupled with her muscular build and alleged facial hair (I’ve seen close up pictures, she’s got no more of a moustache than the rest of us who run to the salon to have ours waxed every fortnight) led the IAAF to start a series of complicated, invasive and above all embarrassing ‘gender verification tests’. In short: she’s not a 34 DD, she’s got the arms and abs of a hard-working athlete (how strange!) and she’s suddenly running faster than her peers so naturally, she must be a dude! And while the egg continues to drip off the IAAF’s face there’s more: this decision was made public virtually on the eve of Caster’s final race in Berlin.

By its own admission, the IAAF started the testing process before Berlin but because of their complex nature (legal, physical, psychological, bio-medical), it simply ‘ran out of time’ to get conclusive results before she was due to run in the final. My issue with that is two fold: if an athlete’s winning time is drastically improved over a short and allegedly infeasible period of time, would the obvious first test not be performance enhancing drugs? And if that is the case, what does it have to do with her gender? The IAAF is using pears to justify the testing of potatoes. And it just plain stinks. Second, (again by its own admission) the Athletics Federation said it began its investigations based also on a murmur of rumour about her gender that became too loud to ignore. Ok, just so we’re clear: you’re an international sporting organization whose rules have become so strict that a second false start in any race leads to automatic disqualification, yet you start an investigation of this magnitude based on locker room gossip?

Needless to say, the roar of protest and righteous indignation from every corner of South Africa has been nothing short of deafening. The country’s Amateur Athletics body, Caster’s high school friends, her siblings and her adoring parents have also been catapulted into the media spotlight by the inept and often condescending international media, trying to get a fresh angle on a story that will surely idle in neutral until the results of the gender test are returned. At which point it will be determined if she (yes we’ve seen copies of her birth certificate but the IAAF hasn’t got the memo) will be stripped of her medal because of an unnatural level of testosterone or if she will join the inglorious band of athletes in history who have "ambiguous genitalia" (like Polish American Olympic champion Stella Walsh) or Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome [AIS] (like Indian middle distance runner Santhi Soundarajan). AIS includes the existence of a 'Y' chromosome in phenotypic females (typically only associated with a male genotype) and results in an inability to respond to androgens. This unresponsiveness leads to a physiologically female-typical body without female internal sex organs. Although the body produces testosterone, it does not react to the hormone.

But enough of the bio-babble. The point is this (and there are many): when the IAAF has finished employing overpriced public relations and marketing specialists to clean up its image after this absurd bungling (which, I might add, would surely never have happened if the athlete in question was, let’s say a Russian female shot putter, weighing in at 250 lbs), Caster Semenya must return to South Africa with a distasteful finger pointed at her and a nasty smudge of bigoted bureaucracy on her glistening gold medal. When will it end?

And don’t get me started on gender roles and how the concept of gender is performed; and how the West and its media monopolies ram what they think appropriate gender representation should be down our throats. Maybe the mongoose will invite me back to talk about that another time.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Creative Commons License
This work is licenced under a Creative Commons Licence