The salacious sports media and the puritanical zealots that run international track and field have joined forces to hit a new low. Someone in the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) leaked to the press that Caster Semenya, the 18-year-old 800-meter track champion from South Africa, is, in the words of Oren Yaniv in the New York Daily News, both “a woman… and a man!”
After being subjected to a battery of “gender tests,” which included invasive exams by a gynecologist, an endocrinologist and a psychologist, Semenya’s private business is now presented for public consumption.
If the leaks are to be regarded as true, they show that Caster Semenya has internal testes and no womb or ovaries. She is possibly one of the millions of people in the world (one of 1,666 births in the United States alone) who are classified as “intersex.”
Or she may have Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome (AIS), which affects two to five out of every 100,000 births. The different biological gender classifications are complex, ever changing and, ideally, private. But to the drooling press, it’s vulture time.
As Yaniv wrote, “The tests, ordered…after Semenya’s 800-meter victory in the World Championships, determined she’s a hermaphrodite–having both male and female organs.” Now the story has gone international, and Caster Semenya has gone into hiding.
Forget for a moment that the term “hermaphrodite” is as outdated and offensive as “mulatto.” Forget that these test results were leaked first to the Australian press, which also referred to Semenya as a hermaphrodite. Forget that Australia was the country that brought these accusations against Semenya in the first place.
Besides being a cruel and idiotic practice, sex testing doesn’t account for the idea that gender is at least in part socially constructed and far more fluid than the iron categories of male and female. An 18-year-old woman is being torn apart in the press for doing nothing but winning a race. If it is the goal of the media and IAAF to destroy the life of a young, talented female athlete by outing her as potentially intersex then they are not simply pitiless; they are socially repugnant.
From the notion that women are somehow weaker and slower than men, to the not-so-subtle racism of Western standards of appearance, and on to their profound ignorance about the fluidity of sex and gender, these institutions are threatening to catapult women in sports back into the Dark Ages. We can’t let them.