Last night South African runner Caster Semenya won the women’s world 800 meters title at the Athletics World Championships in Berlin in the fastest time this year. That was the easy part, but now she must prove to the IAAF (and the rest of the world) that she’s a women and not a man. If there were whispers before, they’ve turned into shouts now, as Semenya thoroughly dominated the field, breasting (or not) the tape at least 25 metres ahead of the next runner.
Standing in lane four alongside Britain's diminutive Jenny Meadows – whose bronze medal was inevitably overshadowed by the hysteria – Semenya's notably developed frame was further exaggerated. Elisa Cusma, the Italian runner who finished sixth, complained, “For me, she is not a woman”.
Despite the embarrassment caused by talk that her lunch-box was as big as Linford Chrsitie's, the teenager’s coach told the media, “We understand that people will ask questions, because she looks like a man”. You can say that again:
- Stubble – check
- Manly chest, i.e. no tits – check
- Masculine hairstyle – check
- Deep voice – check
- Muscular arms, torso, legs – check
- Large shorts that might hide the meat and two veg – check
"Bollocks, these shorts are tight"
Of course, physical attributes alone cannot be conclusive proof. If she is being judged by appearance, then there are loads of other female athletes that should also be questioned, including almost all of the competitors in the field events. The only interest in the women’s shot putt event came during the medal ceremony when there was a real possibility that the podium might collapse. As Steve Cram put it ever so diplomatically when describing 800m world record holder, Czechoslovakian Jarmila Kratochvilova: “She was a distinctive athlete in many ways, not least in physical appearance".
Last month, when Semenya stopped at a petrol station in Cape Town, the attendants prevented her from entering the ladies’ toilets, because they were convinced that she was a man. “Caster just laughed and asked if they would like her to take off her pants to show them she was a woman,” said her coach Michael Seme.
Nobody in the athletics world was laughing last night, when the IAAF admitted that it had started a gender verification process of 18-year old Semenya, the fifth youngest winner in the championships’ history. The IAAF were criticised for being callous in the timing of the announcement, which came just four hours before the most important race of Semenya’s life and meant that a young woman was confronted with serious allegations in front of a worldwide audience of millions.
"It's a man's world"
However, to be fair to the IAAF, the tragic cock-up (sic) for the girl occurred, because Athletics South Africa refused to perform a full gender check before entering her for the championships, even though doubts were expressed last year when her times significantly improved. Given the lack of sophistication demonstrated by her coach, this is hardly surprising, “I can give you the number of her room-mates in Berlin. They have already seen her in the shower”.
But Dr. Ross Tucker, a sports scientist, said yesterday: “Private parts do not answer the question. This is a rudimentary distinction, but does not acknowledge a range of developmental conditions that can cause male characteristics to develop without there needing to be male reproductive organs, so the absence of male organs is not proof of anything.”
Thus, the gender verification test is a little more complex than just pulling down her shorts, and actually involves a gynaecologist, psychologist, geneticist and endocrinologist (er, what?). Apparently, it will take months before they can declare whether Semenya is really seeing a “Man in the Mirror” - with my apologies to Michael Jackson, another whose appearance was often ridiculed.
However, surely there’s no need to employ this raft of specialists to decide whether or not she’s a woman. I could give her some simple tests, which would conclusively resolve the debate by asking her to:
- Throw a ball
- Read a map
- Wire a plug
- Parallel park a car
- Open the lid on a jar of pickled onions
- Walk past a series of shoe shops without entering
If she can successfully complete all of the above tasks, then she is definitely a man.
Or simplest of all (and a test that can take place immediately after a race is finished), just tell her that her bum looks big in her shorts. If she throws a strop, then she is without question a woman.
Alternatively, instead of worrying about her times on the running track, take her to the nearest shopping mall, ask her to buy a pair of jeans and time her:
It’s not the first time that female athletes have faced such gossip. There was a lot of innuendo about fellow African athlete Maria Mutola when she first appeared on the scene, which turned out to be rubbish. Yes, there have been a few athletes who failed gender tests or conveniently retired when they were first introduced, but there are many other athletes who have been accused simply because of their muscular appearance. If that were the critical factor, then Britain’s very own Fatima Whitbread (and Madonna) must also be in the half of the population that leaves the toilet seat up.
And if Semenya were actually a man, then wouldn’t he try to do more to look like a woman? I mean even Tootsie put on a dress and made some effort with his hair and make-up. Speaking of which, am I the only one that cringes at those Eastern European munters who try to disguise their manly features with lashings of make-up? In their case, maybe it’s really to cover-up their acne, which is the inevitable result of steroids – a far bigger problem for athletics than the odd hermaphrodite here and there. As President Obama himself said, “you can put lipstick on a pig, but it's still a pig”.
"Boy meets girl"
Of course, some feminists have already complained that the suspicions over Semenya are little more than sexism, as one of the reasons for the doubts is that she is so much faster than the other women. They might argue that women should be competing with men anyway. After all, according to Harriet Harman, women are supposed to be equal to, if not better than, men.
It looks like it will be a while before the IAAF pronounces on Semenya, and we can only hope that the findings are clear-cut, as a hung verdict would leave lingering doubts. Having said that, I suppose that a well-hung verdict might be considered worse. Either way, Semenya has to be applauded, as she’s clearly got some balls just to run in the final with all the controversy surrounding her.