IAAF has shamefully failed dignified Semenya

 

SIDELINE CUT:By revealing Caster Semenya is to be subject to a gender test, the IAAF have given the speculation official sanction, a de facto blessing, writes KEITH DUGGAN

IT IS an unforgivable shame that the very people tasked with governing athletics are guilty of facilitating its latest outrage just when the sport has found a saviour that the public believes in. Throughout the crude and artless debates over whether South Africa’s Caster Semenya should be chromosomally defined as male or female, one irrefutable point has plainly been forgotten: this is a human being.

The sights and sounds emanating from the storied old stadium in Berlin over the past few nights have been too much. The performances of Usain Bolt have stunned people: watching the Jamaican casually shattering his own world records is like being given a sneak preview of what humankind will look like in centuries to come. But Bolt has the attitude and the streak of fun to go with the unfathomable speed and style. In Beijing, he was let loose upon the world with little or no fanfare. But as the star attraction in Berlin, he clearly has the capacity and appetite for becoming something akin to the Ali of modern-day athletics.

For over a decade, the 100 metres race – the prestige event in athletics for the title of Fastest Man on the Planet – has been clouded with disgraced performers. Bolt is a complete departure from the short, muscle-bound frames of his predecessors and precisely because he looks so different to the stereotypical sprinter, he looks believable. The public have had no difficulty in enjoying what they are seeing and Bolt has raised the rooftops around Berlin with his showman’s arrow pose and his Jamaican sangfroid.

But all of that pales against the breathtakingly unjust way in which the IAAF has allowed an 18-year-old girl with not much experience of the world to be paraded with about as much sensitivity to her feelings as was afforded to Joseph Merrick in the side shows of Victorian London. There is a great irony in the fact that this shameful betrayal of a young athlete should be taking place in Berlin, a venue immortalised by the eloquence that Jesse Owens displayed on the track in the summer of 1936, when Germany and Europe were on the threshold of an unexpurgated jump into darkness.

The bravery that Semenya exhibited not just in having the poise to compete – and win – her race but to step onto the medal podium a night later surely belongs in the same rank as Owens. It should not matter that this distressing and humiliating situation has been foisted on a black South African athlete but the observation that here is another instance of a long oppressed people struggling for a fair shout is unavoidable.

There is nothing the IAAF could have done to prevent the gossip and innuendo about Semenya from bubbling up in the athletics cyber sites and in athletic and journalistic circles in Berlin. But by revealing she is to be subject to a gender test, they have given the speculation official sanction, a de facto blessing.

Her emergence from the South African interior, unheralded and unknown, to declare herself as a front-runner with a devastating time meant that she was always going to come under close scrutiny. Bitter experience means that dramatic improvements or overnight sensations will provoke suspicion in athletics circles.

Semenya could probably have handled the old rap about substances abuse without much bother. But her femininity, her womanhood – who she is – has been thrown out onto the table for what boils down to public entertainment.

Naturally, the general reaction has been one of sympathy. But that does not alter the fact that the damage has been done. It is all very well to castigate the Italian athlete Elisa Piccione, who finished sixth in the 800 metres final, for voicing her doubts about Semenya with the memorably damning declaration, “For me, she is not a woman”.

Gauche as that comment was, the Italian was simply articulating what many others had privately suspected – which is why a country girl from South Africa finds herself obliged to prove her gender not just to the IAAF but to the world.

The bizarre decision to introduce random gender testing at the Sydney Olympics went largely unquestioned. But it was inevitable that if merely voicing suspicions was evidence enough to raise doubts about the gender of a participant, then it would lead to something like the current fiasco in Berlin.

The situation is, in reality, confined to women’s athletics. So any female athlete runs the risk of having to fight for her identity on the whims of others, who simply do not care for the way she looks or who believe she does not conform to the accepted norms of her gender.

Of course, there are precedents here. In that torch-lit summer of 1936, a strange drama revolving around the women’s 100 metres final reached an incredible resolution over four decades later. The sprint star of that summer was the American Helen Stephens. She had an eventful Olympics, winning gold and reputedly evading the amorous overtures of the Fuhrer but also batting back suggestions emanating from the Polish camp that she was a man.

Stephens’s chief rival that summer was Stanislawa Walasiewicz, who although raised in the USA, represented the country of her birth. Famously, Walasiewicz, who later changed her named to Stella Walsh, had the terrible misfortune to be killed during a bank robbery in Cleveland in 1980. Her autopsy revealed her to possess both male and female physical characteristics and an unusual chromosomal make-up.

And three years ago, the Indian middle distance runner Santhi Soundaran was stripped of her silver medal won at the Asian games when she failed a gender verification test. Soundaran found the controversy and embarrassment and pressure overwhelming and attempted suicide less than a year later. She did recover and now runs a successful coaching academy.

So this is what it comes to. An 18-year-old kid from an impoverished South African village who believed her ability to run like a gazelle could lead to fame, to acceptance. Always teased about her appearance, about her husky voice, about her tomboyish dress, she escaped into athletics. Except there has been no escape: the localised teasing and cruel jibes have become universal.

The South African athletics federation ought to have done more to protect their athlete. The IAAF should have predicted this furore and have had a plan in place to protect the girl. They could do nothing to prevent the gossip and innuendo other than to ensure that it remained just that until after these World Championships were over. Instead, they buckled and sent a youngster out before the nakedly judgmental curiosity of the world.

Semenya has behaved with incredible class over the past few nights. She deserves manifold apologies and compensation to the tune of millions. Because who is to say that this fortnight, these games, will not ruin her life? Who can tell how all of this will affect her when the world grows bored and moves onto a new fascination? The Berliners, a city whose citizens knows a thing or two about stigmatisation, seem to have taken the South African girl to their hearts.

Rightly so. Bolt may well be the sensation of these championships. But of all the races run by the elites, young Caster Semenya has run the most poignant and dignified of all.