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Girl Interrupted on the Track

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At Olympic Stadium in Berlin this past week, the young South African runner, Caster Semenya, blew away the field in the women's 800 meters at the International Association of Athletics Federation's track and field world championship. Semenya is an 18-year ingénue from the village of Fairlie in the Limpopo province. The Pretoria University sports science student's brilliant performance caused critics -- we don't know who raised the challenge because complaints are kept anonymous -- to regurgitate decades-old slanders traditionally directed at women who appear too manly. They claimed that Caster is not a woman, and the IAAF has directed the South African governing body for track and field to determine her gender.
It is easy to understand why the IAAF and her competitors would have problems with Caster Semenya's participation if she had some unfair advantage that violated the rules. At the core of every athletic competition lies an established set of rules applied equally to all who would participate in the game. There must be a "level playing field." Unfair or fraudulent competition undermines the essential sports paradigm. We enjoy sports because the outcome is uncertain. Were one club or one player always to prevail over the others, the event transforms into little more than an exhibition. (Therefore, it was good that Tiger lost the PGA.)

The issue of gender identification sits at the edge of sports. Olympic medalist Mildred "Babe" Didrikson, one of the greatest women athletes of modern times, set world records in the 1930s in the women's 80-meter hurdles and javelin throw and competed in track, basketball, baseball, football, and even boxing. Sports reporters always wondered about her masculine appearance: how could a woman perform with such excellence? Didrikson ended the controversy when she married, started wearing dresses, and turned to golf, a more acceptable feminine role at the time.

From the 1960s until the 1980s, the world witnessed Eastern European women perform Olympic weight events with "man-like" proficiency and physiques. Many of those athletes were administered drugs that enhanced their performance and also their male secondary characteristics. There is no issue, however, regarding the use of performance-enhancing drugs in the case of the South African runner. Instead, it seems people object on the ground that she wears trousers and has not developed breasts.

While most persons are born with a typical chromosome combination of XY (male) or XX (female), medical research has revealed that chromosomes also combine in a variety of other "intersex" patterns. Some females are born with only one X chromosome; others have three or more X chromosomes. Body shapes and secondary sex characteristics vary widely. Does that justify a nasty accusation of "cheater" which would follow this athlete throughout her career and allow her to be scorned, abused and reviled?

In the early 1970s, a New York State court had to deal with gender identity issues in the much more difficult case of a transgender tennis player, Renee Richards. The U.S. Open refused to allow her to play in the women's draw and she filed suit claiming sex discrimination. The court ruled that gender was much more than genes -- Richards, who had had sex reassignment surgery, still had the XY pair she was born with. Dr. Leo Wollman, Richards' doctor and co-author of the Standards of Care, which remains the definitive guide for doctors treating transsexual patients, had testified that he considered his patient a female based on her external genital appearance, internal organ appearance, gonadal identity, endocrinological makeup and psychological and social development. He concluded that she would be considered a female by any reasonable test of sexuality. The court granted Richards' request for an injunction, a great victory for athletes from marginalized communities.

Caster Semenya did nothing wrong. As the president of the South African track and field association, Leonard Chuene, said: "Her crime is to be born like that. It is a God-given thing." The IAAF, however, does not recognize divine jurisdiction any more than it will allow a court to review its actions. Semenya will just have to wait until the Association rules she is a woman.