Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Blog blast past: Don't run so fast with the Semenya stuff

South African runner Caster Semenya has been cleared to resume competing. Remember all the controversy late in the summer of 2009, all the wannabe biologists making jokes she was a man? Of course you do. Here's a told-ya-so post from Sept. 10, 2009.

It seemed to shut-the-hell-up on the Caster Semenya saga. No one needs another white, heteronormative dude rambling about a subject he knows little about — middle-distance running, never mind gender issues.

Anyway, it seemed worth saying don't buy all the hype about the Australian report that Semenya is a "hermaphrodite, someone with both male and female sexual characteristics."

Well, not so fast. It kind of leapt off the page when a Digital Journal article noted that "despite having higher than normal levels of testosterone in her urine samples, she is still within the ranges allowed for women in sports." Meantime, via Deadspin, where some gentrification has taken place since Tommy Craggs moved in, The Science of Sport noted that it is not so cut-and-dried:
"Even if all this were true, it still does not necessarily mean that she will be disqualified from future events. There are conditions which are allowable, which would see Semenya being able to compete after surgery (the surgery, by the way, is for health reasons. If you have internal testes, then they can become cancerous, and so must be removed. This might explain their desire to get hold of her, with ASA" — Athletics South Africa — "standing in the way).

"The point is that even if the article is accurate, and the source is reliable, the actual decision around Semenya would not necessarily be disqualification."

Please do not take this too literally since it's an amateur observation (I squeaked by in science), but all the "three times the normal level of testosterone" stuff feels like it is out of context. Like Craggs says, there are genetic freaks in every sport. No doubt most elite female athletes have much more testosterone than the average female. A NFL linebacker would produce more than the average accountant.

Meantime, like the Science of Sport dudes said when all this blew up three weeks ago, " ... genitalia are so ambiguous, that trained medical doctors will disagree and debate for hours over whether someone is male or female, even when that person is already a teenager. Final year medical students, when shown pictures of ambiguous genitalia, and asked to vote 'male' or 'female,' are often wrong!"

Point being, there is still plenty of reason to be skeptical, and maybe people should stop acting like they learned biology from the Season 1 South Park episode where Eric Cartman finds out his mother is also his father. It is probably beside the point to note this does betray the "great in history and English, but bad at math and science" journalist stereotype, or to slag those who have hang their arse on doing a mindless cut-and-paste rather than being smart enough to think for themselves, or realize something is beyond their grasp.

The Lloyd Dobler adage from Say Anything — "I don't know, but I know that I don't know" is a good adage. Gender is more fluid than the labels female and male. Is that so hard for people to understand?

The IAAF has encountered these cases before and will do so again in the future. The furor over Caster Semenya has seemed overblown. Besides, let's be honest, since when did the mass of sports fans anyone care who won an 800-metre race, female or male? It's not the 100, 200, or the marathon. It's too in-between, pun intended.


Anonymous said...

here I was hoping for the first post to have the label 'hermaphrodite' at the bottom...oh well Field Hockey season is just around the corner..One can still hope...

Anonymous said...

Controversy over "gender bending" in athletics has been around for decades....the Stella Walsh case probably the earliest and most famous example.
Much of the rumour mongering that has dogged Semenya today was present when Walsh competed for Poland in the 30's.
Competitors, such as Canada's Hilda Strike who finished second to Walsh in the women's 100 m race, regarded the Pole suspiciously because of her "mannish" features.
Years later, when Walsh was shot dead during a bank holdup in 1980, the truth about Walsh was revealed in an autopsy.
Only the "truth" served only to muddy the water.
The autopsy revealed she was primarily a woman but had male genitals as well.
DNA tests showed she XX and XY chromosomes.
It was because of her case that the IOC started to move away from gender determination testing.
Before the 2000 games, it was dropped entirely.
With or without the tests, gender "integrity" remains a thorny issue.