Gos­sip the ‘dark heart’ of sex melée

Caster Se­menya sub­jected to in­ti­mate, in­va­sive tests, writes JANET SMITH

Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition) - - LIFE -

VERON­ICA Camp­bell-Brown sat on the side of the track in Berlin, wait­ing to run. Her mus­cles glim­mer­ing, her body su­per-strong, the pow­er­ful Ja­maican world cham­pion pulled out two lip­sticks and gen­tly rolled them on in se­quence.

It was an un­ex­pected mo­ment, sweetly rem­i­nis­cent of the late, mag­nif­i­cent Florence Grif­fith Joyner. But to some, that ges­ture alone would sep­a­rate the two times Olympic 200m gold medal­list from an­other run­ner who soared around the sta­dium with calm au­thor­ity to tri­umph at the fin­ish at the In­ter­na­tional As­so­ci­a­tion of Ath­let­ics Fed­er­a­tion’s world cham­pi­onships on Wed­nes­day night.

Our Caster, as South Africa’s win­ner of the gru­elling women’s 800m has quickly be­come known at home, is clearly not a lip­stick kind of girl. And therein lies the rub.

Top ath­lete Caster Se­menya prob­a­bly knew this was go­ing to hap­pen to her. Her tech­ni­cal el­e­gance barely came into it as she slammed into the spot­light this week. The 18-year-old from a vil­lage in Polok­wane will have had to ac­cept there are now se­ri­ous ques­tions about her gen­der that have gone way be­yond the bitchy chat rooms on the in­ter­net where they be­gan.

Not only are the pro­fes­sional tut-tut­ters dan­ger­ously hyp­ing what was un­til re­cently a rather quiet cam­paign to in­ves­ti­gate whether Se­menya is in fact a man, but the in­ter­na­tional me­dia has latched on to what it has quickly dubbed a gen­der-bender sen­sa­tion.

Five-time Olympic medal­list and BBC IAAF com­men­ta­tor Michael John­son was de­scribed as “apoplec­tic” over the fact that Se­menya was com­pelled to go through the tor­ture of such spec­u­la­tion. But de­spite the in­ter­ven­tion of such pro-Se­menya heavy­weights, the story is only get­ting big­ger.

Top Bri­tish book­ies Paddy Power were giv­ing prices by Thurs­day on whether the ath­lete would prove to be a man, a woman or a her­maph­ro­dite.

Since Wed­nes­day night’s oth­er­wise beau­ti­ful victory, IAAF spokesman Nick Davies – who con­firmed in a press brief­ing that Se­menya had been asked to ver­ify her gen­der – has been bom­barded. The fed­er­a­tion has now had to ad­mit it ini­tially hoped we would leave Se­menya out of our team to avoid what The Times in Lon­don has called “the cir­cus”.

The news­pa­per stated in its on­line edi­tion: “She is only 18, so a tal­ent that good would most likely have plenty of op­por­tu­ni­ties to stake her claim to great­ness once the gen­der ver­i­fi­ca­tion process had been com­pleted. If, of course, it cleared her.”

It noted that the next press con­fer­ence about the an­drog­y­nous Se­menya was packed. “Only Usain Bolt has drawn an au­di­ence like that. And, of course, Se­menya didn't show up. She had been ad­vised, sen­si­tively and cor­rectly, to stay away.”

Those who say Se­menya’s gen­der should have been ver­i­fied long be­fore she was al­lowed to com­pete are prob­a­bly cor­rect in light of what has hap­pened over the past few days. The dis­turb­ing pub­lic spec­ta­cle re­ver­ber­ates. It now feels is as if there is a de­lib­er­ate cam­paign to shame the teenager and in­val­i­date her gift. How­ever bizarre, it seems en­tirely pos­si­ble she will soon be sub­jected to the probes of an en­docri­nol­o­gist, a gy­nae­col­o­gist, a ge­neti­cist and a psy­chol­o­gist, all the med­i­cal spe­cial­ists whose opin­ions are re­quired be­fore a de­ci­sion can ap­par­ently be made.

As is­sues of gen­der, race, eth­nic­ity and sex­u­al­ity threaten to turn po­lit­i­cal and not only me­dieval, the run­ner will surely re­mem­ber how she was teased by her fam­ily and friends when she was grow­ing up. Her proud friend Deborah Moro­long said that, as chil­dren in the vil­lage, they would tell her she looked like a boy, “but she never took it per­son­ally or se­ri­ously. She said she was hap­pier play­ing with boys than girls be­cause girls gos­sip”.

Gos­sip is cer­tainly at the dark heart of the tale which is rapidly un­fold­ing around Se­menya, who crafted such a lux­u­ri­ous gap be­tween her­self and her fel­low com­peti­tors on Wed­nes­day night that spec­ta­tors gave a col­lec­tive gasp. Her up­per body un­de­ni­ably big­ger than those of her sweat­ing sis­ters, the mus­cles in her legs coiled for the epic, she pulled away, leav­ing sil­ver and bronze medal­lists Kenyan Janeth Jep­kos­gei and Bri­ton Jen­nifer Mead­ows in her dust.

Gra­cious and cor­rect, Mead­ows would not be drawn into the melée af­ter the race. The topic of XXY chro­mo­some pairs or the un­ex­pected pres­ence of a Y, which does not make a woman a man, was not men­tioned by her. All Mead­ows said was that Se­menya is a great ath­lete.

His­tory will now have to show whether that is what we re­mem­ber best about a girl who was so good at run­ning when she was at school that teach­ers from ri­val vil­lages would com­plain, say­ing she had to be a boy. Or will it be the scan­dal?

A num­ber of Soviet women ath­letes of the 1960s and 1970s might em­pathise with Se­menya. The case of sis­ters Ta­mara and Irena Press is prob­a­bly the most in­fa­mous. Ru­mours abounded. Were they men dis­guised as women? Hermaphrodites? Was it steroids? What else could pos­si­bly ex­plain them set­ting more than 25 world records and winning six Olympic medals in shot put, dis­cus, hur­dles and pen­tathlon.

The fact that they dis­ap­peared for­ever as soon as gen­der test­ing for all in­ter­na­tional sport­ing events was made manda­tory in 1968, was taken by the West as a yes. At that time, all women par­tic­i­pat­ing at the Olympics had to take gen­der ver­i­fi­ca­tion tests, as the USSR and other com­mu­nist coun­tries had been sus­pected too many times of al­low­ing men to pre­tend to be women in or­der to win. They would have to walk naked in front of a panel of doc­tors in the days be­fore chro­mo­so­mal tests.

More than 50 years later, no one knows the truth about the Press sis­ters, but the rep­u­ta­tion of the Soviet fe­male su­per­stars re­mains as freshly ran­cid as ever. By the time Span­ish hur­dler Maria José Martínez Patino was told that she could no longer com­pete be­cause, al­though she had thought her whole life that she was a woman, she was ac­tu­ally a man be­cause she was born with a Y chro­mo­some, there was more than an edge of hys­te­ria. For­tu­nately, she was re­in­stated in 1988.

Whether gen­der is a bi­nary thing or not, and whether it is in­deed true that those fe­male ath­letes who are not con­sid­ered sexy are not re­ally con­sid­ered at all, are the softer side of the de­bate that rages.

Maria Mu­tola, Mozam­bique’s su­perb Olympics win­ner, will hope the is­sues grow­ing around Se­menya will re­main aca­demic. But she prob­a­bly knows this is about as likely as Se­menya haul­ing out a stay-fast sug­arplum lip­stick. Mu­tola’s mas­sive build was al­ways cause for com­ment, and once there were ru­mours she was dat­ing the Bri­tish ath­lete Kelly Holmes, but she was never sub­jected to quite the level of brazen rant as is beginning to hap­pen to Se­menya.

The blogs are mostly still ask­ing play­ful, if grotesque ques­tions like: “How long does it take to have Se­menya pull down her pants and go, ‘Look: no dick, and no scars from a sup­posed MtF op­er­a­tion’?” But the deeper shadow spreads. The fight to pro­tect a girl on the in­ter­na­tional stage has quickly turned to al­le­ga­tions of racism.

“What bull, man!” read one fu­ri­ous re­ply on a web­site that picked up the trail as it started scorch­ing. “Our Caster is a woman. Th­ese Euro­pean peo­ple can­not han­dle the fact that an African can ac­tu­ally be a cham­pion in some­thing and will al­ways try to bring us down.”

There is no doubt that the sub­ject of West­ern ar­ro­gance is also very much part of the cur­rent the­atre. The re­minders of what hap­pened to In­dian ath­lete San­thi Soundara­jan are ev­ery­where.

The sil­ver medal-winning mid­dledis­tance run­ner failed a urine-based gen­der ver­i­fi­ca­tion test af­ter the 2006 Asian Games, and the shame was tremendous. So much so, that there was a gen­der determination lab at the Bei­jing Olympics which ex­am­ined “sus­pect” fe­male ath­letes, bas­ing its out­come not only on hor­mones and genes but also, and at first, on how the woman se­lected for the ig­nominy looked.

There was such a thrill the last time a South African woman ath­lete from a dis­ad­van­taged back­ground won a big prize. Wheel­chair ath­lete Zanele Situ first made her mark in the Syd­ney Par­a­lympics in 2000 when she won javelin with a worl­drecord throw, earned a sil­ver in dis­cus and fi­nally gold at the Par­a­lympics. Situ must hurt as she sees the furore spin around Se­menya. Yet it is im­por­tant to note that South Africans have clam­oured to give the teenager their sup­port. It’s rocksteady pa­tri­o­tism, and it feels good.

The South African Foot­ball Play­ers Union asked why the IAAF chose Se­menya “out of all the ladies at the cham­pi­onships?” It urged the ath­let­ics fed­er­a­tion not to al­low it­self to “be used by coun­tries like Aus­tralia to push their racist agenda against South Africa”, Aus­tralia be­ing the first coun­try where ques­tions were raised about Se­menya.

The Umkhonto we­Sizwe Mil­i­tary Vet­er­ans’ As­so­ci­a­tion has also waded in, call­ing the ath­lete “a real daugh­ter of the African soil with a fight­ing spirit that can­not be con­quered”.

It, too, ex­pressed anger at “the slan­der­ous be­hav­iour that … in­sults the African child and her char­ac­ter”, commending Se­menya for her mod­esty and fo­cus, and say­ing “we never ques­tioned the sex­u­al­ity of ath­letes such as Navratilova and many more be­cause we un­der­stand the re­la­tion of mas­culin­ity, physique and train­ing”.

Un­til good taste, or truth pre­vails, let’s hope Se­menya has a ruth­less sur­vival streak – she’ll need it.

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