Caster Semenya ’as a future athletic force should not be ruled out just yet!’
THURSDAY 22 OCTOBER 2009 / BY CAPUCINE DAYEN
Gold Medal Winner, Caster Semenya, is still under heavy speculation for the validity of her career. Questions concerning her gender have polarized the world and forced the South African government to throw their whole weight behind her. As her sympathizers hold their breath ahead of results from an IAAF gender test, many have questioned the morality of the media and the psychological impact of such intrusion in the young athlete’s life. Questions that remain to be answered are whether the IAAF should encourage her to persevere as her natural self or encourage her to undertake a surgery, and whether testosterone guarantees a win?
What started off as a dream come true on August 19 at the Berlin Summer Games, quickly turned into a harrowing affair for Caster Semnya. As many of her fellow winning athletes gave interviews and basked in the glory that followed their feat, Caster Semenya was condemned to stay on the sidelines and watch her victory scorned. "I think she is clearly a man," Elisa Cusma, an Italian athlete, told Rai TV after the 800 m final. At that point, her coach, Michael Seme told the UK Daily Mail, “It’s a natural reaction that people will ask questions because she looks like a man. It’s only human to be curious. But she has nothing to hide”. For the mainstream media, this was catnip for a cat. Some, like the Daily Telegraph, went as far as setting up outrageous opinion polls on whether or not Caster is a man or a woman. Semenya’s plight was far from over.
Without any proof, media outlets concluded that Semenya must be a ‘hermaphrodite’. She is not. Although it has not been proven in Caster Semenya’s case, the accepted medical terminology to define this rather common phenomenon is ‘intersex’. Hermaphrodite, is used to describe a person who does not fit the typical definitions of female or male. In such instances, a person might be born appearing to be one sex on the outside, but having an opposite anatomy on the inside. On the other hand, however, the term “hermaphrodite” is no longer thought to be appropriate, as it implies that a person is both fully male and fully female, which is physiologically impossible.
In the case of Semenya, unconfirmed reports have claimed that the tests ordered by the IAAF revealed that she carries a level of testerone, three times higher than an average woman, among other things. As much as the news may have come as a total shock to both herself and her parents, the moral duty lies with the IAAF to decide on whether a socially accepted female should be barred from having a career in sports. Many are those who consider that Semenya should not be allowed to keep her medal, even though the IAAF has said that “this is a medical issue and not a doping issue where she was deliberately cheating,” But snatching her hard earned title from her would call for an examination of all former medalists including the most feminine looking! It is believed that a number of intersex persons may appear entirely female or male.
But to continue her career as a sportswoman, some sympathizing observers have suggested that Caster may have to consider undergoing a medical operation with unknown side effects to get rid of the supposed elements that produce the high levels of testosterone. A debate questioning whether or not intersex individuals should endure surgery has been ongoing for many years. According to some experts at the Intersex Society of North America (ISNA), it is appropriate to have competent surgeons perform the operation if it resolves a life-threatening metabolic crisis, i.e; if an individual is born without a urinary opening. Otherwise, surgery is not necessary, especially, if it is to respond to societal pressures, which require that gender be set as male or female.
Responding to some media speculations over cancer related risks concerning the surgical procedure that could enable her continue her career in sports, Dr. Ly, a cancerologist, says there are not enough elements to rule on this issue, however, “a high level of testerone does not expose the athlete to cancer,” he said. Dr. Levet, a plastic surgeon agrees with Dr.Ly and believes that the effect of an operation is likely to be more psychologically related than physiological, “the desire for the operation needs to come from Semenya herself, otherwise it can have dramatic psychological consequences,” he affirmed. Both Dr Ly and Dr Levet practice in Paris. Considering the psychological stress the 18 year old has already undergone, it is unlikely she will take any such decision, but “if she considers it as a career, I think she has proved to South Africans that she is strong minded enough to handle the controversy that may arise out of such an operation” says Anouar Swartz, a South African.
With or without testosterone?
But Anouar wonders whether or not Caster will still "be endowed with her remarkable horse-power without the" presumed "high levels of testosterone after such an operation?" A specialist sports doctor in Paris, who requested anonymity due to the sensitive nature of the case, told Afrik.com that “high levels of testosterone in a woman can contribute to the increase in muscle mass – and also accounts for deeper voices as well as the redistribution of body fat… But nothing so far, has proven that it can help a woman like Caster win her races. This was seen in the case of Santhi Sounarajan as she did not win her race but only came second!”
Indeed, Santhi Soundarajan an Indian 800 meter runner was deprived of a silver medal in Doha in 2006 at the Asian games when she failed her femininity test. What should be noted here is that Santhi did not win gold although she had higher than ordinary female testosterone levels. In Caster Semenya’s case, she did not just win gold but also broke a world record. From a logical standpoint, she has what it takes to win gold without the elevated levels of testosterone. It all depends on her future choice and psychological strength, to face up to an unrelenting media and their humiliating polls. From all indications, Caster, with or without those elevated levels of testosterone remains an irrevocable powerhouse.
Nonetheless, Caster’s remarkable psychological strength has proven shaky in recent times. Not strange. With not as much as half the publicity and ridicule Caster was subject to, Santhi Soundarajan, after the 2006 Asian games attempted suicide. A couple of weeks ago, Miss Semenya informed the University of Pretoria, where she studies sports science, that she will not be able to take her exams. Her trainer, Michael Seme told the Afrikaan Daily that he suspected the trauma was only hitting her now. “Fortunately, the university has a good understanding of her situation and made it clear to her that exams are the last thing she should worry about at the moment. It is very important for all of us that Caster deals with the trauma in her own way, but we are all here for her if she needs us,” he was quoted as saying.
The South African government showed their displeasure with the indiscretions of the IAAF following their lack of confidentiality in the affair. As a result, the South African Minister of Women and Children, Noluthando Mayende-Sibiya, decided to launch a complaint before the United Nations and demand an investigation. "There was "blatant disregard" for Semenya’s "human dignity," he declared. On October 6th, the African National Congress (ANC) finally decided to take action and create a task force to support and protect Caster Semenya and her family. The team, lead by secretary general Gwede Mantashe, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela (Nelson Mandela’s ex-wife) and Dr. Manto Tshbalala-Msimang, is expected to provide medical and legal assistance to the World Champion.
The entire international scene is still awaiting the IAAF’s test results, which should be revealed at some point in November. If the tests are positive, Caster Semenya will have to decide as to whether or not she will undergo that operation. If she accepts the challenge and with the near motherly support her government has shown, Caster Semenya will undoubtedly reign supreme in her discipline and prove to the world that testosterone does not necessarily guarantee a victory win. All in all, "the possibility of Caster Semenya as an athletic force and champion should not be ruled out just yet," says the specialist sports doctor.