The Curious and Sad Story of Caster Semenya, by Larry Eder, Updated September 16, 2009

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Caster Semenya, World Champion, 800 meters, photo by PhotoRun.net.

Let us consider, for the moment, the curious story of Caster Semenya, the gold medalist in the women's 800 meters at the Berlin World Championships. While it is hard to gather all of the facts, here is what we can confirm: Thirteen months ago, Caster was eliminated in the early rounds of the World Junior Track Championships, having run 2:11.98 for 800 meters. Three months later, Caster won the World Youth title in 2:04.3. In July 2009, Caster ran 1:56.72, decimating her personal record for 800 meters and becoming the holder of the best mark by a women at 800 meters in 2009. In the world championships, Caster Semenya ran 1:55.45, another world leader, to take gold in the World Championships!

This type of meteoric improvement can happen, but makes most keen observers of the sport skeptical. When the story leaked that the IAAF requested a gender test on Caster from the South African federation, then the story got murkier, and murkier, and today, still murkier.... (Updated September 16, 2009).

The great media guru, Marshal McLuhan once said, "The medium is the message." In the Cold War, sports replaced atomic war, at times, as the way the US and the Soviet bloc promoted the benefits of their political systems. The ends justifies the means, a lovely rationalization for everything from water boarding to saturation bombing, was another phrase used at the time, and for matters of this discussion, history seems to be repeating itself.

In this day and age, sports is a medium used by marketers, to get their messages across. In the modern world, with over 500 television stations on the average home cable television, sound bites are all that most causes, countries and events get to push in front of a public over-saturated, over-satiated and naturally cynical to the intrusiveness of various media platforms. One can not go into a restroom without finding advertising, and in some places (Las Vegas), televisions have invaded even the posh restroom!

I recently spent nine days enjoying, like the thousands of fans who entered the Berlin Olympic stadium, the best jumpers, sprinters, throwers and distance runners that the global village of two hundred plus participating countries had to offer. From Usain Bolt to Kenenisa Bekele, to Blanka Vlasic, the World Champs 2009 celebrated what is best in our world, and what is best in our sport.

When the event, like the women's high jump, got down to the basics, one athlete jumping against the other, a universal language was created, that no Croat, Russian, Spanish, German or English speaker could misunderstand. The competition was fierce, the emotions honest and results up in the air until those last, final attempts. What more can one ask for in our sport?

Alas, modern sport mirrors modern life. Symbols, messages, mediums, rationalization abound in modern life. Some good, some not so good.

Consider the curious story of Caster Semenya, the gold medalist in the women's 800 meters. While it is hard to gather all of the facts, here is what we can confirm: Thirteen months ago, Caster was eliminated in the early rounds of the World Junior Track & Field Championships, having run 2:11.98 for 800 meters. Three months later, Caster won the World Youth title in 2:04.3. In July 2009, Caster ran 1:56.72, giving Semenya the fastest time in the world for 800 meters in 2009-decimating her previous best. Last week, Caster ran 1:55.45, to take gold in the World Championships! This was a meteoric rise, to say the least.

(Note, Caster Semenya has never held the WJR for 800 meters, that is held by Pamela Jelimo of Kenya, who ran 1:54.01 in Berlin ISATF in 2008. Ms. Jelimo had broken the WJR 800 six times when she ran 1:54.01).

The World Championships of track & field are the most important event, per our global federation, the IAAF, in our sport. Every two years, this nine day festival of global sports takes place, and to much acclaim. The 2009 version was one of the best I have attended (I have been accredited for nine), and the performances were...well, nothing short of amazing.

The story was leaked that Caster Semenya has a testosterone level, per testing requested by the IAAF, of three times that of a normal women. In an AP story, the South African federation claims that there was never a request for gender testing. Who is fibbing here? Well, read on...

In a recent article in Inside the Games, http://www.insidethegames.com/show-news.php?id=6530, the prominent sports news website that follows all things Olympic, wrote about the huge crowd meeting Caster Semenya in South Africa yesterday on her return home. In the crowd, were leaders of all the political groups in South Africa, including Winnie Mandela, the ex-wife of Nelson Mandela. Also noted in the crowd and speaking as the South African Sports federation leader, Leonard Chuene.

Leonard Chuene suggested that racism had a part to play in the treatment of their "little girl". Winnie Mandela went so far as to threaten South African media on how they cover the debacle. The lines in the sand were drawn. Anyone who challenges Castor being a girl is anti-ANC, the African National Congress. Nice way to shut up critics. Wasn't this the tactic used by the former SA government who supported apartheid? Wasn't this was the same media that played such a huge part in the dismantling of apartheid? Well, memories are self serving for some, I guess.

Niccolo Machievelli, a thoughtful observer of the life politik six hundred years ago, once noted that all relations have politics, and such is the curious and now, sad case of Caster Semenya. His comments are prescient still today.

It has become quite apparent that the South African federation will use any means
necessary to ignore the requests of the IAAF. They want their gold medal, and the life of a teenager be damned. What has happened? Using gender testing is now being equated with racism. And there is so much that we do not know about gender and its various effects.

For the definitive piece on the Semenya affair, I ask the thoughtful reader (and all of our readers at RBR are in that category, I believe) to read today's blog by Pat Butcher at
Globerunner.org--http://www.globerunner.org/blog/?p=235. This column is, in my mind, a quite definitive piece on the whole debacle, and is a great example of Butcher's strength-writing about difficult subjects with some humor and much wit (think John Cleese at times).

So, here is how I see it: I see an eighteen year old kid, away from home, scared, running in front of 50,000 people, and winning a major title. The kid has been raised as a girl, per her father, and no reason to not believe him. Caster Semenya, who has, again had this meteoric rise to fame, must have been confused by the lack of warmth exhibited by the crowd during the award ceremony and the questions at the interview area (Semenya was whisked through the interviews faster than Usain Bolt ran the 100 meters). Her experience in Berlin is just, well, sad at best, cruel at worst.

SA Federation chief, Leonard Chuene, who has called those asking about Castor's gendar 'racist', should be eating some of his words. Lamine Diack, who is a black man, Senegalise, and President of the IAAF, was the man asking, quite discreetly, for gender testing. Lamine Diack, it has been noted, chuckled about the racism comment, having dealt with sports politics all of his life. It now appears that Mr. Diack is now personally getting involved in this debacle, hoping to end the scrutiny and get some closure for the young athlete.

Gender issues have been part of our sport for over seventy years. Just Google Stella Walsh. The 1932 winner of the 100 meters, was murdered in a burglary in 1980, and at the time, in the autopsy it was found that she was she had both male and female sex organs, as well as XX and XY chromosomes (see Gazeta Wyborcza 190, 14 August 2004). She had lived her long life as a women. Today she might be considered to have one of 46 noted gender abnormalities.

This is becoming a witch hunt. In the middle ages, women accused of witchcraft were tied to a chair, dropped in a pond with weights. If they floated up to the top (hardly), they were declared witches, if they stayed down, and consequently drown, they were not witches. If Castor is proclaimed a women, she gets hurt, if she is proclaimed a male, she gets hurt. This has become, under the lights of the media worldwide, a witch hunt, and a young teenager's life is at stake.

Gender abnormalities are more common than most of us would have thought (Butcher's piece in globerunner.org covers the topic quite well). This issue has come up before, and the IAAF, the federation of the athlete and athlete in question have worked the issue outside of the eyes of the media and public. Some times, and in cases of gender abnormalities, I would suggest that discretion is the best mode of operation.

In the end, this story seems to be about a federation, bereft of medals, wanting one more medal. I sure hope that is not the case, because, no matter how this works out, a life has been horribly harmed. And that life belongs to Caster Semenya.

Consider for a moment the average American teenager. I was part of the staff of a high school dorm for five years in my university years. I remember kids being depressed over problems with acne, breakups with girls, or not making the football team. Those were painful times.

How does one help a kid who might not be what she or he was raised as? And worst than that, the entire world knows? At the end of the day, the curious and sad story of Caster Semenya could have been avoided, and the people who were supposed to protect her, are, in my opinion, the one's to blame.


For more on Inside the Games, please click on http://www.insidethegames.biz

For more poetic writing from Pat Butcher, click on http://www.globerunner.org

For twenty-four views of our sport, please click on the portal, http://www.runningnetwork.com

Special thanks to Tom Casacky for his corrections.

Updated September 16, 2009.

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