The Case of Caster Semenya

by John Lanchester, October 21, 2009

The case of Caster Semenya has seen the admini­stration of athletics go about as badly wrong as it pos­sibly can. Semenya is the 18-year-old South African woman who won the 800-meter World Champion­ships in Berlin this August, having improved her per­sonal best by startling margins: in the final of the 800 meters African Junior Championship a few weeks previously, she did so by four seconds. The body which administers athletics, the International Asso­ciation of Athletics Federations or IAAF, responded by making Semenya take a gender test, a fact which was immediately and unforgivably leaked to the world’s press, causing planet-wide interest, specula­tion and scandal. Another wave of scandal hit when the specific test results were leaked: they allegedly showed that Semenya had both male and female sex­ual characteristics, and an unusually high level of tes­tosterone. The news caused justified outrage in South Africa where the sports minister, Makhenkesi Stofile, said that if the IAAF were to ban Semenya, “it would be the third world war.” It then emerged that Athlet­ics South Africa had performed gender tests on Semenya before she competed in Berlin.

Hard cases make bad law. Gender tests were briefly a routine feature of international athletics, but now they are only ordered in specific instances, because they are both complicated to do — involving endocrinology, gynecology and internal medicine — and complicated in their philosophical consequences. There was a happily naive period in the late 1960s and 1970s when it seemed as if gender testing was a straightforward issue involving Soviet bloc athletes who were either men pretending to be women, or women whose coaches had made them take so many illegal hormones that they were turning into men. Example: a pair of Soviet sisters, Irina and Tamara Press, set 26 world records in the early 1960s, but didn’t show up for sex testing when it was first intro­duced in 1966, and were never seen again. Photos of large, impossibly muscular and hairy Soviet bloc ath­letes were a routine feature of the sports pages. The high spot/low spot of this historical moment came at the 1976 Olympics in Montreal, when every single female athlete except Princess Anne was subjected to a sex test which involved nothing more complicated than a grope. If the test was too demeaning for Prin­cess Anne, it should have been too demeaning, period. Though in the face of the great Soviet hairy women offensive, that’s not how the International Olympic Committee chose to see it.

Subsequent years saw the process of gender testing become more sophisticated. This was the point at which things became truly complicated, because the tests showed an unexpectedly large number of female athletes had naturally high levels of male hormones and quite a few had the male Y chromosome. The athletes in question had no idea, and the effect of “failing” a sex test in this way was often highly trau­matic. Furthermore, it was always and only female athletes who went through this experience; there hasn’t been a single instance of a male athlete turning out to be partly female. (As many men have inter-gen­der characteristics as do women; but it’s the male hormones, especially testosterone, which are useful in sport.) As a result, the IAAF stopped performing compulsory sex tests in 1992, and the IOC, the body that runs the Olympics, followed their example in 1999. The fact that the question of blurred gender dis­tinctions is, in the athletics world, so well known, makes the IAAF’s failure in the instance of Caster Semenya all the more culpable.

In the ordinary run of things, women’s sex chromo­somes are XX and men’s are XY. (When Ted Heath rang up the editor of the Dictionary of National Biography to complain about the way some­thing he’d written had been copy-edited, he was put through to the editor, Dr. C.S. Nicholls. When she answered, Heath found himself for a moment speechless with surprise. He finally managed to blurt: “Why are you a woman?” Her reply: “Because I have two X chromosomes.”) It is not, however, the chro­mosomes which directly control gender; the deter­mining factor is the hormones which the chromo­somes, taken together, instruct the body to make. In some cases, there is a discrepancy between the chro­mosomes and the body’s hormone kit; in particular, some women are chromosomally XY, but also pro­duce a hormone which blocks the operation of the male hormones. They are women, but with a Y chro­mosome. Women affected with this condition are tall and lean and often very striking looking. They have a vagina but no uterus, and often have testicles which don’t descend and which are, in the developed world, removed to reduce the risk of cancer. Many of these women become actresses and models.

I must admit, I’d always thought that tales of celeb­rity hermaphroditism were wishful thinking, a bit like stories about famous actors with mice stuck up their backsides owing to S&M experiments gone wrong — but once you hear the science, you do start to wonder. Two historical figures I’ve heard men­tioned in this context are Wallis Simpson and Marlene Dietrich. The condition (the XY one, not the dead mouse one) is rare, but not that rare: one case in 15,000. That means that there are four thou­sand of these women in the UK alone. Globally there are 400,000. Since encountering this fact, I find I look at fashion photography in which the women don’t look like anyone you’ve ever seen in real life in a new light. A speaker at the Lib Dem conference raised the issue of making magazines carry a sticker admitting when photographs have been digitally manipulated, to prevent young women being oppressed by an unachievable idea of physical perfec­tion. But what about the idea that the physical ideal they are sometimes being invited to admire is chro­mosomally XY? And that’s just the specific case of this particular condition, which is Swywer syndrome, or XY gonadal dysgenesis. More general conditions involving gender abnormality affect one in three thou­sand people — which, globally, is two million people. There are more human beings who are in some degree intersex than there are Botswanans. I’m not sure what conclusion one should reach, other than that the lives of people with intersex conditions might be easier if this fact were more widely known, and that Ms. Semenya has been very harshly handled.

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