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Margaret Wente (Curtis Lantinga)
Margaret Wente (Curtis Lantinga)

Margaret Wente

Caster Semenya, the poster victim Add to ...

You've got to pity Caster Semenya, the ambiguously sexed runner who won a women's world championship race last month - by quite a wide margin. The poor South African girl has been betrayed by her handlers and exploited by her own country. She has set off a huge debate about the uses and abuses of gender testing in elite sports. Her track career is probably over. On top of that, the entire world is curious about her genitalia.

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And now, she's become the poster victim for a bunch of folks who think that gender is just cultural, that our questions about Ms. Semenya are oppressive, sexist and racist, and that gender testing ought to be abolished.

"Results of the gender investigation aside, Caster Semenya's humanity has already been sacrificed to Western culture's desperate, frightened effort to maintain the fiction of binary, fixed gender," wrote Kai Wright at The Root.

"The salacious sports media and the puritanical zealots that run international track and field have joined forces to hit a new low," thundered Dave Zirin, sports editor of The Nation.

"To win, you need to start with an unfair advantage. Maybe Semenya has one, but I'm still not sure it matters," argued Craig McInnes in The Vancouver Sun.

Ms. Semenya is blameless in this matter. She was raised as a girl and identifies as a woman. At first, the villain was the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), which ordered her to be tested after she won. The tipoff might have been that she looks like a man. She has a man's musculature, flat chest and thicker facial features. She has a deep voice, too. I'm ashamed to admit that when I saw her picture, I too rushed to judgment. "That's a man," I thought.

The South African government was outraged. It accused the IAAF of being sexist and racist. The women's minister said questions about Ms. Semenya's gender showed the "extent of patriarchy" in the sports world. The sports minister threatened a "third world war" if she was banned from competition. One magazine dressed her in stilettos and put her on the cover to prove how womanly she was. She looked like a man in drag.

Unfortunately, Ms. Semenya had already been secretly tested - by her own handlers - and the team's own doctor had urged them to withdraw her from the race.

Australian newspapers report that Ms. Semenya is, in fact, intersex. She has no uterus or ovaries, but she does have undescended testicles. People born with such anomalies are not rare. But they're not common, either. They have disorders of sex development that used to be known as defects. They are now cited as proof that sex and gender are entirely fluid, largely socially constructed, and that biology and DNA mean nothing.

Some people argue that these things don't even matter in the world of elite sports. "When training and nutrition are equal, it is increasingly difficult to tell the difference between some of the best-trained male and female Olympic swimmers," Mr. Zirin gamely wrote. He suggested that the idea that "women are somehow weaker and slower than men" threatens to catapult women's sport back into the Dark Ages.

Of course that's ridiculous. No woman will ever beat Michael Phelps, or even the guy who came in last. Those pesky male hormones will always make men significantly faster, stronger and higher than women are, to say nothing of more interested in beer and football. They aren't just another individual genetic advantage, like Mr. Phelps's gigantic feet. They are the deep, fundamental dividing line between the sexes.

It may be impossible to find a way for Ms. Semenya (who's been atrociously mistreated by the medal-hungry South Africans) to compete at an elite level. Is that unfair? Maybe. But it's even more so to pretend that it would be an equal contest. Women athletes shouldn't have to compete against people with a male hormonal edge. The next time we worry about how to be fair, maybe we should ask them.

 

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