One of the sad realities of the world is that, once a newspaper story breaks, it is impossible to stop its spread. The story of 18-year-old South African athlete Caster Semenya is a case in point.
As everyone on the planet now knows, Semenya is at the centre of a global row about whether she is, theoretically, a man or a woman. The controversy followed the revelation by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) that it was carrying out tests on Semenya shortly before the women’s 800 m race at the recent World Athletics Championships. Semenya’s dramatic winning margin, coupled with the announcement, created a media frenzy. If you type ‘Caster Semenya’ into Google, you now get over 700 000 references.
But the situation has been disgraceful. The IAAF, presumably for a range of good reasons, made confidential information public, breaching numerous ethical standards. The world responded by feeling it appropriate to discuss Semenya’s physical characteristics causally and in public. Even those claiming to support Semenya often made their case by referring to how she looked or acted. The more this happened, the more she became objectified.
The result is that it seems everyone has now lost perspective and the debate continues unabated, when the priority should be to try to give Semenya back her privacy – not to heighten public interest.
The real issue in this case is how, and why, the case was made public and how this has been sustained – not whether Semenya is technically a man or a woman.
It is reasonable to ask: Why did the IAAF publicly announce that it was testing someone before full results were known? We can only speculate. Was it to combat a leak? A mistake? In a BBC report, it was claimed that preliminary test results became public because a fax was sent to the wrong person. And has the IAAF done everything to protect Semenya’s privacy since the announcement and offered adequate support?
I do not think that the primary issue, at least at this stage, is the nature of the IAAF’s rules and tests of what qualifies someone as a man or a women, and what this means for participation in different races. If one participates in a sport, and it has rules of this kind, no matter how obscure or unfathomable they are, one agrees tacitly to accept them and to be judged by them.
If one thinks the rules are wrong, that is a different fight.
Gender tests of this kind have been carried out in the past. Athletes from India, Poland and Austria, besides others, have been banned from competition after being ‘found to be men’. I wonder how many people around the globe can name these athletes? Most of us cannot because, generally, it is only after a ruling has been made that any public announcement (if any) is made about an athlete’s future. Until then, the person’s private life is kept out of the public eye. Semenya herself was apparently tested in South Africa in 2007 – this never hit the headlines.
The IAAF has launched an internal inquiry into the handling of the issue. Pressure should be put on the IAAF to ensure this is not a whitewash. An understanding of how this mess happened and who was responsible, and strategies to minimise its continuing impact on Semenya are needed. The emotional damage to her by the IAAF’s actions and how this can be rectified should also be considered.
Wider than this, constant public discussion and political grandstanding should cease. I feel guilty of this myself by even writing this piece. Seems we are all perpetuating the story.
Specifically, what is needed is an immediate moratorium on speculation and discussion about the outcome of the gender tests. We should all try to give Semenya back her dignity by keeping our opinionated mouths shut about this and let her deal with the ramifications in private.
Brandon Hamber writes the column "Look South": an analysis of trends in global political, social and cultural life and its relevance to South Africa on Polity. Copyright Brandon Hamber, September 2009. "Look South" Column published on Polity on 11 September 2009.