Her voice is deep, in the lowest alto range for a female. Her breasts are non-existent, hips boyishly slim.
Throughout her life, when she looked in the mirror, Caster Semenya saw a girl. She apparently never doubted her gender. Certainly her parents believed they’d raised a daughter — one who, as it turned out, could run like the wind.
The International Association of Athletics Federations was not so sure.
For 11 months the IAAF had left Semenya hanging, ever since the South African athlete crushed the field in the 800-metre final at the world championships in Berlin. Some competitors, astonished by the muscular Semenya’s overwhelming dominance in that race — a two-second margin of victory — and her dramatically improving times, complained that she had to be a he — just look at her.
So the IAAF looked. Medical experts looked. Lawyers looked.
The teenager’s mortification can only be imagined.
On Tuesday, the global track and field authorities who had ordered gender verification testing finally released their verdict, clearing Semenya to resume her career as a girl runner — perhaps as soon as the world junior championships in Moncton, N.B., on July 19.
Yet the statement issued by the IAAF was oddly imprecise, which might very well provoke challenges — at the very least fail to smother disgruntlement — from Semenya’s running opponents.
“The process initiated in 2009 in the case of Caster Semenya has now been completed,” the government body stated tersely. “The IAAF accepts the conclusion of a panel of medical experts that she can compete with immediate effect.”
Her gold medal and race times have been formally recognized and Semenya will receive an undisclosed financial “settlement” for her ordeal.
But nothing was stated flatly about Semenya — rumoured to be a hermaphrodite, meaning she has both male and female sexual organs (though the second set of genitalia could be internal) — being a female, full stop. Medical details will not be released.
“Why should they be out there?” Semenya’s lawyer, Greg Nott, told South African television last night. “Would you like your sex records to be made public?”
For the past three weeks, Semenya has been participating in a training camp in Pretoria, along with the rest of this country’s track team. She had declined interviews but her coach, Michael Seme, described his star as “unfit” physically and merely going through the motions as she waited — and waited — for an outcome to her case, a decision repeatedly deferred by the IAAF. “She can’t do any speed work or prepare to race until we know when she can compete,” Seme told reporters last week.
The waiting, the pending, is now over. Why the process took so long has not been explained. A month ago, South African Sports Minister Makhenkesi Stofile scrapped a press conference at which it was assumed the medical results would be revealed. That was just one more false start for Semenya, and she’s endured many since last August’s compromised triumph.
The 19-year-old released a statement Tuesday afternoon, expressing her delight at being able to race again. “I am thrilled to enter the global athletic arena once again and look forward to competing with all the disputes behind me.”
But only hours earlier, in a brief phone interview with Associated Press, Semenya had said: “I don’t feel anything.”
What she has clearly felt, all these long months, is embarrassment, as the most intimate details of her being were debated around the world, after news was leaked that the IAAF was scrutinizing her gender. Different sports federations follow different rules about determining sex. The International Olympic Committee no longer requires mandatory gender testing, though it continues to struggle in drafting guidelines to help federations handle “ambiguous” athletes who may have “disorders of sex development,” as some doctors describe the condition.
It has been a humiliating experience for the teen, suddenly famous — and notorious — for what may or may not be between her legs.
What’s not clear, and likely will never be publicized, is whether Semenya underwent any medical procedure or testosterone-suppressing treatment during her long layoff.
Nott insisted Semenya has come through her public trial with honour intact. “Caster’s dignity has been repaired by her own grace and her own strength.”
He conceded not all of Semenya’s competitors will accept this decision. A few, during the past year, have threatened to boycott races if Semenya was allowed to compete as a female.
“It’s up to them if they want to challenge it,” said Nott. “There may be athletes who do not accept her, but there has also been an outpouring of love and support.”
He further claimed that sponsors have come forward with potential endorsement deals for the runner.
“We’re going to see our golden girl in her track shoes and ready to compete.”
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