Gossip the ‘dark heart’ of sex melée
Caster Semenya subjected to intimate, invasive tests, writes JANET SMITH
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.