It’s Kafka-esque. A small number of specialists have been ordered to determine if South Africa’s international champion in the women’s 800 meter race, Caster Semenya, is really a woman. After her blazing victory and complaints from her international opponents, the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) ordered a “gender test” that includes examinations by “a gynecologist, endocrinologist, psychologist, an internal medicine specialist and an expert on gender.”

It is more than Kafka-esque, say Semenya’s family, friends and supporters. It is racist. Leonard Chuene, who heads South Africa’s international athletics, told reporters, “Who are white people to question the makeup of an African girl? I say this is racism, pure and simple.”

Chuene, who resigned from his position at the IAAF in protest, also noted the stigma that has been heaped on Semenya because of the IAAf’s question about her gender. “In Africa, as in any other country, parents look at new babies and can see straight away whether to raise them as a boy or a girl,” he said. “We are now being told that it is not so simple. But the people who question these things have no idea how much shame such a slur can bring on a family.”

Critics of the IAAF’s move have charged the federation with doing nothing more than simply searching for an explanation for why Semenya so dramatically improved her times in the 800 meter race over last year. The 18-year old shaved something like eight second off her best time in 2008.

IAAF ordered the test perhaps because they could not chalk her victory up to rigorous workouts and talent. After all, South Africa is a poor country whose athletes should simply not match up to the rest of the world.

As Dave Zirin and Sherry Wolf observe in a recent piece in The Nation, “A country’s wealth, coaching facilities, nutrition and opportunity determine the creation of a world-class athlete far more than a Y chromosome or a penis ever could.” Zirin and Wolf also noted that homophobic stereotypes of “mannishness” and “manliness” have fueled much of the historic controversy around gender identity in sports.

Given this, IAAF officials knew there was something wrong. Semenya passed drug tests, so she must be a man.

“Just look at her,” said Russia’s Mariya Savinova, who lost to Semenya. Elisa Cusma, the Italian runner who also lost to Semenya, told Italian reporters: “These kind of people should not run with us. For me, she’s not a woman. She’s a man.”

South Africans remain staunchly supportive. A mass rally to welcome Semenya and her teammates is scheduled for August 25th at the Tambo International Airport near Johannesburg.

The Young Communist League of South Africa described the incident as laced with racism, sexism and vestiges of imperialism. In a statement the YCL said, “it feeds into the commercial stereotypes of how a woman should look like, their facial and physical appearance, as perpetuated by backward Eurocentric definition of beauty.”

In addition, “It suggests that women can only perform to a certain level and that those who exceed this level should be men. It seeks to reinforce the societal stereotypes that men are better than women, and thus, cannot go unchallenged,” the YCL charged.

The YCL also charged the IAAF with violating its own rules about the maintaining the privacy of athletes who undergo such “gender testing” and called for an investigation into who leaked the details of the case to the media.

In the end, what should have been a celebration of Caster Semenya’s athletic accomplishments has been subverted to dominant and dated confusions about the diversity of human life.



Joel Wendland-Liu
Joel Wendland-Liu

Joel Wendland-Liu teaches courses on diversity, intercultural competence, migration, and civil rights at Grand Valley State University in West Michigan. He is the author of The Collectivity of Life: Spaces of Social Mobility and the Individualism Myth, and a former editor of Political Affairs.