Today the IAAF, the athletic world’s governing body, deemed South African runner Caster Semenya’s body to be female-enough to compete as a woman in the global arena. After enduring a year of dehumanizing public speculation and dispute about the nature of her sex—and undergoing countless gender “tests”—Semenya has been told her gold medals no longer hang in limbo and can remain hung around her neck.
“Hopefully, this resolution will set a precedent so that no female athlete in the future will have to experience the long delays and public scrutiny which Caster has been forced to endure,” [said Jeffrey Kessler] (http://nbcsports.msnbc.com/id/38105633/ns/sports-olympic_sports/), who represented Semenya in the 10-month long negotiations with IAAF.
“I have been subjected to unwarranted and invasive scrutiny of the most intimate and private details of my being,” Semenya said in late March, before the IAAF cleared the 19-year-old to race again.
At the time, she also announced her return to athletics competitions but was refused entry in several meets. Semenya said she announced her return without IAAF’s consent because of her need to compete. “I am an athlete first and foremost and it is vital for my competitiveness, my well being and for my preparations for events during the European summer that I measure my performance against other athletes,” she explained.
She’ll now be able to do so again, and keep the medals she won.
But Semenya’s case raises serious questions about how we define gender and gender discrimination—and why we continue to define certain characteristics exclusively as masculine or feminine. It has also renewed the once-heated debate over how, if at all sporting bodies in the global arena should decide who is fit for their gendered competitions.
The Semenya controversy became public back in summer 2009, after the newcomer won the African Junior Championships and raised eyebrows by shaving a remarkable seven seconds off of her best time. IAAF’s doping probes quickly turned instead to gender testing, setting off months of angry back and forth about how the episode was handled by both IAAF and South African officials.
Gender testing is not new to sporting, though since its introduction in 1932 it has undergone regular revamping to align with the way society perceives female gender (men have never been required to prove they are, in fact, men). Gender testing arose out of the fear that athletes who don’t fit neatly into rigid concepts of male and female bodies would have unfair advantages over their competition. Although there is some truth that increased testosterone levels can have an effect on performance, it is not a guarantee. There are more questions than answers, but for now the IAAF will continue with its gender testing.
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