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Caster Semenya's sex – a human rights issue?

Updated on August 10, 2012

Does facial hair indicate masculinity?

One of my great-aunts had a beard and moustache, but I don't recall anyone ever calling her sex, or her gender, into question, I spite of the fact that she, although married, didn't have any children.

She died when I was still young, but I still vividly remember how I used to hate going to the house she shared with my other great-aunt, Hetty, in Tamboers Kloor, Cape Town. I was terrified of Aunt Minah.

The sisters, one widowed and one a spinster, lived together for many years in the house bought originally by their father, the Rev Andrew McGregor of Robertson, Cape, which he had called “Rob Roy Villa”.

This memory of two old ladies in Cape Town was revived in the current furore over the sex of middle distance runner Caster Semenya, whose sex has been questioned by many commentators, and indeed, the International Amateur Athletics Federation (IAAF), which has initiated gender tests on Semenya, after her record-breaking 1 minute 55.45 seoncds run in the 800 metre race at the World Athletic Championships in Berlin last week..

This has inevitably raised the issue of race, which is almost always present in sport in South Africa. During the apartheid era the government lavishly supported sport codes favoured by whites, while allowing those favoured by blacks to languish in not-so-benign neglect. As a result rugby and cricket flourished among whites while black rugby, cricket, field hockey, tennis, swimming and athletic sports people had to make do with second or third rate facilities.

It is hardly surprising, then, that many in South Africa see racism in the case of Semenya.

Caster after winning gold
Caster after winning gold

Racism or not?

The head of athletics in South Africa, Leonard Chuene, was reported this week as saying, "It would not be like that if it were some young girl from Europe. If it was a white child, she would be sitting somewhere with a psychologist, but this is an African child."

Historically that is not true, though, as the cases of, for instance, Tamara and Irene Press of the Soviet Union, who were known to their detractors as the “Press brothers”, as well as Santhi Soundarajan, have in recent years had similar problems.

It goes even further back than that for in the 1932 Olympics Stella Walsh (real name Stanisława Walasiewicz) won gold for Poland in the 100 metre sprint in a time of 11.9 seconds. Ironically she was beaten in the 1936 Olympics by US athlete Helen Stephens who herself had to undergo a genital inspection to prove that she was in fact a woman. When Walsh died in 1980 it was discovered, in an autopsy, that she had under-developed male genitalia.

Perhaps the most infamous case of gender-bashing was the description by Martina Hingis of Amélie Mauresmo as a “half man.”

In the case of Semenya the tragedy is that most of the furore could have been avoided if the two sporting bodies involved had done their work properly. Firstly Athletics South Africa (AS) should have been more pro-active in dealing with the doubts about Semenya's sex, as questions have arisen about her ever since she began to show her exceptional running ability. ASA should have done thorough testing of their own and have been able to present their findings to the IAAF. The IAAF should never have made so public, in so insensitive a manner, that they were going to do these tests. It has caused Semenya unnecessary pain and has unleashed a huge uproar of disapproval in South Africa, where western arrogance is seen to be at work.

Indeed the issue is now seen as a human rights one in South Africa. The chairperson of the Parliamentary sports committee, Butana Komphela, has been quoted as saying that the committee would refer the matter to the United Nations Commissioner for Human Rights.

Khompela was quoted as saying, "Just because she is black and she surpassed her European competitors, there is all this uproar."

This is all so sad, and so unnecessary. However, to me there is a bright side and that is that South Africans are uniting behind Semenya, both white and black coming out in her support. A column in the Johannesburg newspaper The Star at the weekend was headlined “If Semenya's a man then the Wallabies are a bunch of girls.” This is a reference to the Australian rugby team which came to South Africa to compete in the Tri-Nations Tournament and were thoroughly beaten by the South African team, the Springboks.

In his column, the writer, Kevin Ritchie, remarked, “Part of me wonders whether the chromosomes didn't get lost in the jeans this week.”

Even the leader of the Democratic Alliance, the official opposition in the South African parliament, Helen Zille, who doesn't often find much to agree with the ruling African National Congress, was vocal in her support of Semenya. In the blogosphere too comments are overwhelmingly in support of Semenya.

Perhaps her mother should have the final word about this remarkable young woman, who is after all only 18 years old and from a deeply rural part of the country. Semenya's mother Dorcas said of those who question her daughter's sex, "They are jealous. I say to them, go to hell, you don't know what you're saying. They're jealous because they don't want black people improving their status."

All I can say is “Go, Caster, Go!”


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    • profile image


      9 years ago


    • profile image


      9 years ago


    • profile image


      9 years ago

      Have the athletic association ever heard of Hippa laws. Sheesh, poor girl and she can look very feminine and might

      I say pretty too. Check her out in her makeover for "Glamour" magazine. You go Gurl!!

    • profile image


      9 years ago

      It is very unfortunate the way the Caster issue was handled. The matter was so inhumanly handled.Go on gal Caster. All the best of lack

    • MistHaven profile image


      9 years ago from New Jersey

      I don't understand why they don't investigate these things before competitions even start. It's like waiting for something to die at an intersection before putting a traffic light there. I wish Caster Semenyas the best, I can only imagine what she's going through.

    • Jaspal profile image


      9 years ago from New Delhi, India

      It certainly should not be made a racial issue ... that's just whipping up more publicity, whereas what is required is discretion and sensitivity. As you have pointed out, she won't be the first to be so been tested. In this case it's been badly handled by the various athletes' federations concerned.

    • Paul Profitt profile image

      Paul Profitt 

      9 years ago from England

      speaking as a black person, I have to admit that Caster looks like a man, but the way that she has been publicly humiliated is "WRONG"

      and this incident should have been handled "PRIVATLY"

    • Drew Breezzy profile image

      Drew Breezzy 

      9 years ago from somewhere in my mind

      It is not a race issue.The thing is she shattered the world record by TWO SECONDS! That is a huge deal. The fact that she looks like a man in the face is not helping. If you watch a video of her on youtube speak she does sound like a young man.

      If she is a female that is a shame that she is suffering this kind of humiliation. But if she is indeed a women there should be no issues. Many athletes have to be subjected to test and public scrutiny to prove their legitimacy.

    • fastfreta profile image

      Alfreta Sailor 

      9 years ago from Southern California

      I agree with all that was said, and I say also dignity should have been afforded her, by questioning her privately. Thanks for all the research that you did on this hub. Very good hub.

    • Peter Dickinson profile image

      Peter Dickinson 

      9 years ago from South East Asia

      Privacy all the way is the way to go. It started all sorts of ideas running around in my head though about transgender olympics. Thanks for your hub.

    • tantrum profile image


      9 years ago from Tropic of Capricorn

      This is a disgusting and terrible thing to do. If they suspected her not being a woman, they should have handled it privately. It's humiliating for any human being to go through those kind of tests. Annoying !!!

    • Paraglider profile image

      Dave McClure 

      9 years ago from Kyle, Scotland

      I saw her mother interviewed on BBC World. I thought she held her dignity very well, and just said - she's my girl, she come from here [pointing 'there'], and I know what she's got. She's my girl.

      It's been badly handled by the Athletics authorities.

      But that Usain Bolt - I'm sure 'he' is a woman...

      (because no man ever ran so fast!)

    • advisor4qb profile image


      9 years ago from On New Footing

      I agree. It should not have been made so public unless there was evidence that she is not a woman.

    • tonymac04 profile imageAUTHOR

      Tony McGregor 

      9 years ago from South Africa

      Indeed! Thanks for the comment.

      Love and peace


    • BrianS profile image

      Brian Stephens 

      9 years ago from Castelnaudary, France

      If they had to do this at all, and I question that, they should have done it very quietly and discreetly. Shame for her to be subjected to such an unnecessary ordeal.


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