26 August 2010

Semenya: silence creates ignorance

Caster Semenya is racing again. But the 800-meter world champion cannot outrun the questions about how and why medical experts cleared her to compete as a woman.

Happily, Caster Semenya is racing again. About time, too. But the 800-meter world champion cannot outrun the questions, some of them legitimate, about how and why medical experts cleared her to compete as a woman.

The decision by track and field's governing body, the IAAF, to give out nothing more than a terse, uninformative 56-word statement announcing the end of Semenya's nearly yearlong gender-testing ordeal increasingly looks like a mistake.

It respected Semenya's privacy, but it was too short to stop tongues wagging. Although Semenya has competed sparingly since her ban was lifted in July - Semenya's fourth race will be this Friday in Brussels, Belgium - the drumbeat of "she's half a man" is starting up again and could get louder as her times improve, as they surely will as she returns to peak form. Such whispers are wrong and ugly and uncharitable, but they also are not surprising given how poorly this saga has been handled from the start and how little effort authorities have made to dispel the misunderstandings about Semenya's case.

Uninformed guesses

Kept in the dark, competitors lining up against and being beaten again by Semenya have been left to make uninformed guesses about the gender-testing process she was subjected to. Saying simply that doctors concluded that she can compete, as the IAAF did, is not enough. Its silence and brush-offs from Semenya about what, if anything, doctors prescribed to enable her to compete again is keeping the door open for the type of intolerable ignorance voiced this past weekend by Diane Cummins. The Canadian runner should be made to wash out her mouth with soap for her stupid insensitivity.

"Is she man, is she lady?" Cummins complained to the Daily Telegraph of London after she finished 1.21 seconds behind Semenya in Berlin on Sunday.

On the fringe of female biological composition

"Even if she is a female, she's on the very fringe of the normal athlete female biological composition from what I understand of hormone testing. So, from that perspective, most of us just feel that we are literally running against a man," the newspaper quoted Cummins as saying.

Clearly, Cummins doesn't get it. That means other, more diplomatic competitors likely don't, too. They need some help figuring out the complex and sensitive issues of gender and biology that are involved here. In truth, we all do. It would help if the IAAF took the lead instead of simply clamming up.

Public admission

The public admission by NBA star Magic Johnson in 1991 that he was living with HIV marked a step toward ending the shame that was associated with that disease.

Likewise, if Semenya has a rare birth defect that was at the root of the questions about her sex then surely it would be better if such things could be talked about instead of remaining largely taboo.

Handled correctly, with tact but also with more openness, is it possible that Semenya's case could be used to generate wider acceptance and understanding for people with so-called "disorders of sexual development?"
Look further than muscular frame

As it is, as Cummins' comments showed, some people are still incapable of looking any further than Semenya's muscular frame and thinking "man" -even though that is mistaken and cruel.

It is unreasonable to expect Semenya herself to become a Johnson-like advocate, at least not now. She is only 19. She comes from a poor village in South Africa and seemingly had no idea that she might be differently biologically from most other women until this whole affair blew up around her. She needs to focus on herself and her promising career after the horrid 11 months that she spent being prodded, poked and debated over by doctors and public opinion.

Someone should speak up

But someone does need to speak up - either her lawyers, her manager or the IAAF. They don't need to open up Semenya's medical files to public scrutiny. But it would help if they gave more information than simply, to cite the IAAF statement, "she can compete" and "please note that the medical details of the case remain confidential and the IAAF will make no further comment."

If Semenya does have a birth defect that doctors determined might have been giving her a competitive edge over other women, then perhaps that could be explained privately to those runners who race against her. If she has since undergone hormone treatment to reduce or negate that advantage, then that should be explained, too. The risk otherwise is that the doubts about Semenya will simply linger, which is unfair for her and those who race against her.

"It's obviously a human rights issue but human rights affect everyone in the race, not just one person," British runner Jemma Simpson told the Telegraph after finishing fourth in the Berlin race that Semenya won. "No way is it a personal issue but it's a debate about what is right and fair for everyone." - (JOHN LEICESTER/Sapa/AP, August 2010)


Read more:

Semenya cleared to run

Semenya's sex: why the doubt?




Read Health24’s Comments Policy

Comment on this story
Comments have been closed for this article.

Live healthier

Lifestyle »

E-cigarettes: Here are five things to know

E-cigarettes have become hugely popular in the past decade, but a rash of vaping-linked deaths and illnesses in the US is feeding caution about a product that's already banned in some places.

Allergy »

Ditch the itch: Researchers find new drug to fight hives

A new drug works by targeting an immune system antibody called immunoglobulin E, which is responsible for the allergic reaction that causes hives.