Gender and sport's duty of care

Published : Aug 29, 2009 00:00 IST

The doubts over the world women's 800m champion Caster Semenya's gender extends a fraught August for two of the sports most associated with amateur idealism. As rugby deals with the allegation that coaches may have deliberately cut players to justify substitutions, is one of the world's quickest women also gaining an unfair advantage?

There is a long history of innuendo in athletics: several eastern European women in the lifting and throwing events came under scrutiny, and the late comedian Bernard Manning used to do a cruel routine suggesting that two leading British female Olympians might have, as it were, less clearance over the hurdles than other women in the running.

Those examples establish the polarities in this case. At least some shotputters from the former Soviet bloc clearly had been given chemical or surgical assistance in qualifying for the ladies' games. Manning's gags, though, were simple sexist prejudice, triggered by the failure of these great sportswomen to look sufficiently like Felicity Kendal.

The statement from the International Association of Athletics Federations cites "gossip" as one justification for the investigation. The IAAF also says that suspicion has arisen because of a very sudden recent improvement in the performer's times. This, though, makes little sense because it is hard to imagine how she could have rapidly become a man except in the very loose sense that this phrase is used to describe an adolescent growth spurt in the late teens. But the history of the Williams sisters in tennis also suggests that women can also suddenly gain in power and muscularity at around this age.

Without being too indelicate about this, lycra running shorts and slow-mo HD television pictures show that if Semenya is a man, she is clearly no Linford Christie. This would seem to leave three possible explanations: concealment with tape, a sex-change operation during adolescence, or a congenital chromosome imbalance which would leave the athlete neither one sex nor the other. The athlete's coach absolutely denies any deceit or trickery.

So we are down to two places on the podium. One is that the 800m champion is simply the victim of misogynist prejudice: the instinct that encourages the accusation that any woman who becomes influential or successful - politically or sportingly - must really be a man, either actually or metaphorically. Angela Merkel (recently named as the world's most powerful woman), Margaret Thatcher and Hillary Clinton have all been the subject of cartoons or comedy sketches, and it may be that Semenya has suffered similar resentment at equality.

The historical assumption has been that the physiology of men means that they will always be stronger and faster than women in all sports, but it may be possible that modern nutrition, conditioning and coaching are collapsing this gap: it might be interesting, for example, to see Venus Williams play Andy Murray. If the explanation of the Semenya affair does turn out to be simply that her unusual appearance has attracted odd looks, then the IAAF may be judged to have failed horribly in its duty of care towards a vulnerable teenager. Whatever the outcome, she will forever be linked with the Orwellian phrase - "gender verification" - chosen for this process. And it is not clear why it could not have been probed more privately than this bombshell announcement followed by the promise to get back to us in a few weeks.

The second of the benign possibilities - that the runner suffers from some natural form of hermaphrodism - would leave athletics with a very sensitive decision. The closest parallel is cricket, where one of the greatest Test match bowlers, Sri Lanka's Muttiah Muralitharan, was permitted by a congenital defect in his arm to bowl deliveries that would be illegal from a man without that disadvantage.

It can also be argued that the 100m world record holder Usain Bolt's greatness is due at least partly to an unusual arrangement of limbs, which traditionally proportioned sprinters will never be able to match. On this basis, if Semenya is a natural anomaly, her medals would have to stand.

Any other explanation apart from name-calling and DNA is too horrible to contemplate. After the fake cut scandal in rugby, that sport is clearly no longer a gentlemen's game. Let's hope it doesn't turn out that women's running is.

Mark Lawson/© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2009

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