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Fast Making History

August 20, 2009

Quickly, since it’s been on my mind, I just want to give a nod to two very different but equally historic and fascinating stories in world-class running.

First, of course, there’s Bolt — and his two record-breaking times, including the 9.58 seconds that blew history’s last best 100-meter run completely out of the water. Unbelievable.

bolt

But this week in running, there’s “unbelievable,” and then there’s “unbelievable.”

Hence the story of another winner, 18-year-old Caster Semenya.  An unknown who exploded to World Championship victory in the women’s 800-meter race, Semenya’s legitimacy as a competitor is now under investigation.

What sort of investigation?

“Gender testing.”

Now, I’m not so surprised at the IIAF for investigating Semenya, and frankly I wouldn’t be shocked if she “failed” to meet the requirements to “qualify” as a women for athletic competitions, given the wide range of natural-born body types compared to notoriously narrow bio-medical definitions of male and female sexes.  What intrigues me is how sports organizations, culturally and historically speaking, determine who “qualifies” as sufficiently female.

From The Independent:

Semenya now has to face a panel of experts convened by the International Association of Athletic Federations (IAAF) to adjudicate over challenges to her gender. The panel, consisting of a gynaecologist, an endocrinologist, a psychologist, an expert in internal medicine and another expert on “gender-transgender issues” will not give their final verdict on whether Semenya can keep her gold medal until a least the end of the month.

An “expert on ‘gender-transgender issues'”?

Can’t wait to see how this one goes down.

And as the L.A. Times reminds us, “There have been controversies about gender in track and field for several decades.”

An autopsy after her 1980 death found that Stella Walsh, who won the 1932 Olympic gold medal in the 100 meters for Poland, had male genitals and mixed male and female chromosomes. She retained her gold medal and a silver she won in 1936.

At least two women have been banned from track and field since 1967 because they failed chromosome tests, although one was reinstated. An Indian distance runner lost a 2006 Asian Games silver medal after failing a gender test.

As recently as the 1987 Mediterranean Games in Syria, only a visual inspection was used for gender verification. By that time, mouth swabs to reveal chromosomes were the accepted method, but questions about their accuracy led to the IOC ban on using them exclusively to determine gender.

To paraphrase Simone de Beauvoire, one is not born a woman; you gotta prove it to the panel.

But, of course, questions like these are never merely philosophical or academic.  Every day, people are killed over gender non-conformity of some form or another.  Whatever the results of the “investigation,” my best wishes go out to the courageous Semenya and her family, through what will no doubt be a very difficult time.

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