Athletics' crying game

21 August 2009 | 16:00 - By Jesse Fink

Caster Semenya may be a case for the sex files, and the truth is out there, writes Jesse Fink.


The 800m women's sprint at the IAAF World Championships in Berlin on Thursday was extraordinary for two things. First, it was won in a canter, daylight between the winner and the place-getters.

Second, if the rumours are true, it was won… well, by a bloke.

Usually winning athletes descend the dais to universal acclaim and lucrative endorsements. South Africa's Caster Semenya was instead greeted with a gender test ordered by the International Association of Athletics Federations, athletics' governing body.

This in turn sparked an international incident, the African National Congress, South Africa's ruling party, urging "all South Africans to rally behind our 'golden girl' and shrug off negative and unwarranted questions about her gender". (An ironic description of Semenya, given Bea Arthur, one of the female stars in the TV show of the same name, was often confused for a man.)

But to be fair to the IAAF, theirs hadn't been a kneejerk reaction to Semenya's whopping victory margin of nearly three seconds. They'd ordered the test well before the race was run, three weeks in fact, when Semenya beat her previous PB by an astonishing eight seconds at a meet in Mauritius. Even by swimming's standards, that is exceptional. Or rather exceptionally suspicious.

So the IAAF was and is right to investigate. Until the test results come back, though, the claim and counter-claim of Semenya's supporters and her detractors rages on. 

Italy's Elisa Cusma Piccione, who came sixth in the 800m, is convinced Semenya is "a man", while Semenya's family is adamant she was born a girl, her mother Dorcus insisting, "People can say whatever they like but the truth will remain, which is that my child is a girl."

Her old schoolmaster, Eric Modiba, however, is not so sure, and says Semenya dressed for Nthema Secondary School in boys' uniform of pants and not the regulation skirt. Hmmm.

Obviously due process has to take its course and there has to be a presumption of innocence (if that is the right word) in Semenya's case but while The Finktank is no expert in the field of chromosomal forensics, I think there may be something in it, judging from this interview after the race.

If gold medals were handed out for 18-year-old girls with deep voices, Semenya would be wearing two around her neck this week. It should be stated that having a deep voice does not make a woman a man, just as having a high voice doesn't make a man a woman – if that were the case David Beckham would be in all sorts of strife – but it is a feature that at the very least is oddly compelling and gives weight to the suspicions that have been raised.

What's not helping Semenya's cause at all, though, are comments by Leonard Chuene, the president of the South African Athletics Federation, who scraped the bottom of the barrel by suggesting Semenya is being targeted because she is black.

"It would not be like that if it were some young girl from Europe," he said.

"If it was a white child, she would be sitting somewhere with a psychologist, but this is an African child."

With the greatest respect, Mr Chuene, Tintin in the Congo was published in 1931.

We've all moved on. Pull the other one.

This is a simple matter of fairness. To Semenya's opponents, to fans, to sport. She might say she doesn’t "give a damn about it" but there's plenty of people who do.

They are owed the truth.

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Comments (6)

26 Aug 2009 11:02 AEST

Jesse Fink

From: Sydney, NSW


Thanks for the info on Arbeit, Alessandra. There's a development in the story. Semenya has allegedly returned a test with three times the normal amount of testosterone.,8659,25983178-23218,00.html

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24 Aug 2009 23:37 AEST


From: center

A totally crooked coach? Certainly a tainted past...

Have you seen this? The head coack of Athletics SA, Ekkart Arbeit, was head coach for throwing events of the East German track and field team from 1982-88 and chief coach in 1989-90, that is, the East German shot put team and Heidi Krieger!!

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24 Aug 2009 11:49 AEST


From: sydney


Fink you are a bit od a disgrace to journalism to say the least. this article is an indictment on the poor girl ( to bad if i disapponit you here) rather an objectional piece. For your info too, every human carries abit of xx & xy characteristics but one of them has to be more prevalent in determining sex, unfortunately it may be the case that this poor girl have both of them in equal measure..look at Cathy Freeman for eg! thsi issue will not have arisen if Caster had masked her self in makeup?

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23 Aug 2009 22:42 AEST


From: Thorngate

Why is this gender testing in the public domain?

Sure do whatever test to prove her gender but this really should be done in private without the public ever knowing about it. Whatever the result of the test, Caster Semenya is the loser. Even if the test turns out to be a girl, she will still have the negative stigma as the manly girl who needs to prove her own gender. It really is unacceptable and completely disrespectful to her privacy. Who ever let this out public should be ashamed with themselves.

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23 Aug 2009 22:23 AEST


From: center

Excellent commentary, Jesse!

Written to the point, with a nice quick-witted touch.

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22 Aug 2009 0:10 AEST


From: melbourne


to drag some science into the debate, 'she' could be a guy and honestlly not have any idea. having spent a couple of years of my training in paediatric surgery, it is sometimes actually impossible to tell just by looking whether a baby is male or female (we get to use the lovely term 'ambiguous genitalia'). without knowing much of semenya's personal background, if she was born without access to specialist medical care (quite possible) she could have had what looked like slightly abnormal lady bits and was just sent on her way. it's happened disturbingly frequently, even in this country (although fortunately much less so now). were she not an elite athlete, it may have never come up. that is, until the awkward point when she realises that she can't get pregnant. so yeah, even if it transpires that she is really a dude, it could quite easily be news to her and her family.

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About this Blog

The Finktank is more of what you've come to expect from Jesse Fink, The World Game's enfant terrible, but with a bent on the big issues in sport. No sport, no personality, no subject, is off limits. 

Jesse Fink Jesse Fink is one of Australia's most popular football writers and sports columnists. He is the author of the book 15 Days in June: How Australia Became a Football Nation (Hardie Grant, $29.95) and writes twice a week as "Half-Time Orange" for The World Game and weekly for ESPN Star Sports in Singapore. He lives in Sydney.