Sunday, December 13, 2009

Caster Semenya

I might be completely behind the times, but a New Yorker from a couple of weeks ago was the first to inform me of Caster Semenya.

She won the gold medal in the 800 meters at the 2009 World Championships in Athletics with a time of 1:55.45 in the final, again the fastest time of the year.* Following her victory, questions were raised about her gender.

The New Yorker article, "Either/Or" about her and her case is great. The author, Ariel Levy is sympathetic to her case, calling her "breathtakingly butch."

But the article is also about South Africa and the importance of sports to the country.

And it is also about sex, gender, and a history of the way that athletic association including the International Olympic Committee have (unsuccessfully) defined (and verified) the sex of competitive athletes.

"Unfortunately for I.A.A.F. (the International Association of Athletics Federations) officials, they are faced with a question that no one has ever been able to answer: what is the ultimate difference between a man and a woman? “This is not a solvable problem,' Alice Dreger said. 'People always press me: 'Isn't there one marker we can use?' No. We couldn't then and we can't now, and science is making it more difficult and not less, because it ends up showing us how much blending there is and how many nuances, and it becomes impossible to point to one thing, or even a set of things, and say that’s what it means to be male."

*I have a soft spot in my heart for this race and the 4x800 meter relay. In high school I was lucky enough to be the slowest leg on the relay stacked with some pretty fast girls for a Class B (second largest class of schools in the state). We took state in the race twice, once beating even all of the class A teams. My leg was a whopping 27 seconds slower than Semenya's.


Mwa said...

I'm always amazed that this needs to be explained to people. How could this still be seen as a black and white distinction?

giddings said...

Here's what is interesting though... I don't think the athletic organizations think it is black and white! I think that they literally can't decide how to divvy people up along sex/gender lines at all. I mean, it's not fair for Caster to compete with "men" OR with "women". So where and how do we draw lines? We know that there are athletic "freaks of nature" out there: Lance Armstrong and Michael Phelps come to mind for their strange personal characteristics that have aided them immensely in terms of athletic prowess. But when someone comes along and has some irregular aspect that is also enhancing but related to sex or gender, we then have to pick it apart and say it is unfair for her to compete. Strange.