Women’s 800m gold medallist to undergo sex test

// 20 August 2009

Caster Semenya, a South African athlete who won gold in the 800m at the Athletics World Championships last night, has been asked to undergo a sex test following her sudden emergence on the international scene after winning the South African Junior Championships on July 31, when she ran faster than anyone in the world this year. Having passed a drugs test, she must now undertake the sex test in order to retain her gold medal, despite assurances from the South African athletics federation – and her mother – that she is female.

It may be that she does have some kind of intersex condition that she is unaware of, but that the current speculation is to a large extent based on her appearance is a sad reflection of how deeply we buy into gender stereotypes and the oppositional model of two genders, as evidenced by the hurtful comments from two of the other athletes in last night’s final:

“These kind of people should not run with us,” Elisa Cusma of Italy, who finished sixth, said in a postrace interview with Italian journalists. “For me, she’s not a woman. She’s a man.”

Mariya Savinova, a Russian who finished fifth, told Russian journalists that she did not believe Semenya would be able to pass a test. “Just look at her,” Savinova said.

There also seems to be a lack of recognition of the difference between sex and gender in the reporting of and speculation surrounding the case; I’ve seen the terms used interchangeably all over the place, with little respect for Semenya’s self-identified gender.

I don’t have the relevant expertise or knowledge to get into a discussion of how sex can be determined for the purposes of sporting events, or indeed what the implications of the complicated nature of sex should be on such competitions, but as a human being, Semenya deserves so much more than the hurtful attitudes displayed by other athletes and the International Association of Athletics Federation’s insensitive handling of the situation. As Michael Johnson pointed out on the BBC last night, athletes accused of doping are kept safe from international judgement until the results come through; the same should go for sex testing. It seems unlikely that Semenya would find herself in quite this situation if her appearance were perceived as more “feminine”.

Comments From You

Zanda // Posted 20 August 2009 at 6:42 pm

Yes, the BBC reporter kept referring to Semenya’s gender in the radio 4 reports this evening, when they meant her (biological) sex. As if competitors are split according to gender! Bemusingly, the IAAF’s sex tests will include assessment by a psychologist. What?.. So if she ‘thinks like a man’ she might lose her medal?

tilly // Posted 20 August 2009 at 7:12 pm

I’ve just watched the One Show’s coverage of this story – pretty shocking including childish sniggering, and an invitation for audience members to go to the website and submit their own suggestions for gender tests – current examples include “Measure the size of her feet. Evreyone knows that a woman has small feet to get closer to the sink” and “Ask her if she gets ‘a cold’ or ‘Life threatening flu’ If it’s the latter -MAN!”.

SnowdropExplodes // Posted 20 August 2009 at 7:45 pm

I’m inclined to cut the IAAF a little slack here, because it seems this issue was “outed” by others’ comments (such as the athletes you quoted) and that they were pressured into making some kind of statement.

I agree, though that the statement made by their director of communications was somewhat subpar:

“It’s a medical issue. It’s not an issue of cheating. We’re more concerned for the person not to make this something which is humiliating for her and something which is going to affect her in a negative way. This is why you will appreciate we have to be discreet. She is a human being who was born as a woman and who has grown up all her life as a woman but who is now in a position where this is being questioned.”

Which is all very well, but it’s a bit late now to talk about avoiding “negative effect” or “humiliation”.

Apparently, they’re going to address the issue of testing in a sporting context by using the services of a gynaecologist, an endocrinologist and (bizarrely, it seems to me) a psychiatrist. I guess I see the point of the first two, but what would a psychiatrist have to do with sporting performance based on physical sex?

I think it was encouraging to see that not all the athletes were making comments about it – Jenny Meadows, the British athlete, didn’t say anything about the sex issue but simply described Semenya as “a great athlete”.

One other thing, it’s possible that there is a heavy dose of racism mixed in with the sexism and transphobia surrounding this story, because Semenya’s African features are coded as “unattractive” and “unfeminine” in White Western culture.

Jess M // Posted 20 August 2009 at 8:27 pm

Just wanted to add that this post at What Tami Said casts some light on the racism in what Caster is being put through:

I know that people will point to Semenya’s narrow hips and broad, muscular shoulders and androgynous voice and say that critics are right to question her femininity, but black women have had their womanhood challenged for much less. First Lady Michelle Obama…pop singer Ciara…the list is long. (Monica at Transgriot has a great series of posts about this issue.) Having a “womanly body” and wearing pretty clothes and makeup is emphatically not enough to help high-profile black women escape charges of not being women at all.

Amity // Posted 20 August 2009 at 8:33 pm

This has been angering me all day. The revulsion this woman is being regarded with all because she is a) fast and b) “not pretty” (as one BBC commentator said) is making me sick. Yet Usain Bolt is breaking records left and right and being celebrated because he is a member of the male ruling class and all his achievements are celebrated without question.

saranga // Posted 20 August 2009 at 9:20 pm

I find this whole thing horrible sexist and probably transphobic – i say probably because so far as I can see, Semenya has always identified as female and I have read nothing about her tranitioning, however, I think that the attitudes and reactions displayed by other people towards her, are indicative of transphobic attitudes.

Does anyone know what a sex test will consist of?

Steph // Posted 20 August 2009 at 9:39 pm

I almost gagged at some of the very lame newspaper headlines like “has a man won the women’s 800m?”. Ugh.

There’s so much mysogyny going on here… not only that because of her looks/build that doesn’t conform to what sections of society, the media and sporting arena expect, then therefore ‘she must be a man’, but also y’know, Usain Bolt is leaving the rest of the field standing and he’s celebrated as a great athlete, whereas when Caster Semenya does it, she gets accused of ‘being a man’.

R. // Posted 20 August 2009 at 9:50 pm

I would take a guess that the other athletes are making such comments due not so much to their views on Caster herself but the fact they she took first place and they didn’t while also being a realtive newcomer. The IAAF are also being really patronising to the South African team, Castor’s family and most of all Castor herself.

Feminist Avatar // Posted 20 August 2009 at 10:01 pm

I assume that for fairness and parity Usaine Bolt will be gender tested to check he is male.

Legible Susan // Posted 20 August 2009 at 10:16 pm

[Retrofitted notes: i) I’ve only seen BBC Sports coverage, ii) This turned into an essay]

I hoped somebody would have posted about this! Some things that struck me, apart from what you said:

– The “sudden emergence on the international scene” is referred to a lot, but she was in the World Junior Championships last year, which means they had plenty of time to make discreet enquiries if they wanted to.

– I suspect there’s an intersection with race involved (assumptions using European standards), since they confuse sex and gender and it sounds as though the original rumours were based on her appearance … I can’t tell much about her gender presentation from what she looks like on the track, except for her hairstyle; which could be an unremarkable hairstyle for a young woman in her village, for all we know. If people are expecting femmy flowing locks, her hair probably wouldn’t even do that.

– I think I’m hearing “She’s too good to be a woman, so she must be a man”, and I remember that a British paralympian was reclassified so that she’d have had to race against women with more mobility, because her times had improved and somebody claimed she couldn’t be as disabled as all that. Women have to work twice as hard etc. yadda yadda, but those who actually do the work and become excellent are rejected.

– The BBC people were respectful (though sometimes confused), but they showed a clip where someone confronted her about “rumours that you were born a man”, and that’s when she said she didn’t give a damn, which may have been the diplomatic version of what she wanted to say. Born a man! That would be totally inappropriate if people thought she was trans/MAAB, but nobody who wasn’t being a bigot has suggested that anyway; it seems to be all about possible hormone imbalances (which would be not actually an imbalance but a different balance from the one the gender police wanted, of course).

– The policing of gender in sport has changed a lot: the original version was so crude that even the authorities recognised it was inappropriate … by the 1990s.

Steph // Posted 20 August 2009 at 11:18 pm

Also, there’s an appalling short piece on the Telegraph website:


I’ve never been a Telegraph reader but I still expected better than this sort of journalism from them.

Telegraph editoris William Lewis – william.lewis@telegraph.co.uk – if you want to make your feelings known.

Josie // Posted 21 August 2009 at 8:44 am

Tilly, I was also disgusted by the One Show’s coverage – childish and pathetic at best, nasty and misogynistic at worst. I’m leaning towards the latter. And I agree with other posters that the inclusion of a psychiatrist in the ‘sex test’ team is baffling and very worrying. Poor Semanya – hope she makes it through all this with her sanity intact

JenniferRuth // Posted 21 August 2009 at 9:11 am

This whole thing has made me feel sick. The ideas of sex and gender are so deeply ingrained in society that if a woman runs fast and doesn’t look feminine enough…must be a man!

My sympathy is with Semanya and I admire her for being so strong in the face of all this horrible misogyny.

SapphireCate // Posted 21 August 2009 at 9:18 am

BBC did better this morning on breakfast: they sent a reporter to her village to record supportive, appalled messages from neighbours and friends; they used the words ‘travesty’ and ‘humiliation’ seriously; they noted the intersection with race.

There’s a great discussion going on at Shakesville with some great suggestions for non-gender based performance divisions in sport.

Steph // Posted 21 August 2009 at 10:39 am

As Jennifer says, why is a psychiatrist involved? They’re causing enough problems within the current medical fraternity with intersex and trans conditions as it is, without being trotted out for something like this when it’s simply not required.

George // Posted 21 August 2009 at 11:35 am

I think the first thing that strikes anyone who has read Fausto-Sterling’s “Sexing the Body (2000), is that this problem is not unusual within sporting events. Indeed, she spends the first chapter discussing how sex functions within the Olympics, and uses this as the starting point for her account. However, I am deeply disheartened by the fact that a full academic discussion of sex, gender and the like has done absolutely nothing (it would seem) to help individuals who have their sex or gender questioned, either by ‘society’ in general or by the scientific establishment. As far as individuals who do not fall into the binary categories of ‘man’ and ‘woman’ are concerned, we’re in the sodding 19th century.

The second things is that this has thrown up the deep, deep transphobia within the British media, as well as a complete lack of awareness of sex and gender issues.

What can we do???! I mean, I know that all of my friends are horrified, but I deliberately hang around with people that would be without me banging on at them. How do we reach people who are out of earshot?

In fact, this sort of crap even comes from media feminists, which is doubly disheartening – Greer is off on one again: http://www.guardian.co.uk/sport/2009/aug/20/germaine-greer-caster-semenya


Rita // Posted 21 August 2009 at 12:05 pm

What is bad about this is that it was blown out of proportion because she won by miles. No one would have cared if she had come out of medal’s position.

I would not mind her being checked to rule out any cheating but the whole thing has just run out of hand without a care in the world. If she is a natural born female, this is going to be a bad experience for her as a person. I hope her self esteem is left intact.

Laura // Posted 21 August 2009 at 12:50 pm


Yet she came in well under the world record time; hardly an indication that she’s so far ahead of the other women that she must be a man trying to cheat. Besides, the assumption that if she’s better than everyone else she must be a man rather than an awesome female athlete is plain sexist.

If she is a natural born female, this is going to be a bad experience for her as a person.

We have no indication that she views herself as anything other than female, and I don’t think anyone’s saying that she’s a man knowingly cheating – the IAAF spokesman said that if she can be determined to be biologically male or has an intersex condition she must currently be unaware of it, having lived all her life as a woman.


Thanks for the link highlighting the racist aspects of this.

sianmarie // Posted 21 August 2009 at 3:31 pm

i know i shouldn’t be shocked – but bloody hell, the amount of “jokes” on both the germaine thread and this thread (http://www.guardian.co.uk/sport/2009/aug/19/caster-semenya-gender-verification-test) are just horrible, shockingly awful!

for example – “well the psychologist can tell by seeing if she likes shoes or beer” oh ha ha ha watch me as i fall off my seat laughing.

it is so sad that such a talented athlete is having to go through such a media circus because some people are ignorant enough to think those kind of jokes and the kind of language being used are funny.

(altho – there are a surprising amount of interesting and sensitive comments on the thread with links and informative explanations on the complex nature of sex vs gender etc)

Ziva // Posted 21 August 2009 at 4:52 pm

I was so angry by the way this has been presented in the media, and I’m really saddened that someone who should be being celebrated and praised for her sporting achievements is instead harrassed and humiliated. It makes you sick, and the complete ignorance to the difference of sex and gender, as other posters have pointed out: argh!!! But the thing that gets to me most of all is, as Laura mentioned Michael Johnson’s comment in the initial post about the insensitivity in handling this issue compared with athletes who fail drugs tests and the protection they receive. So much for innocent until proven guilty – oh wait, it’s a woman that amazing at what she does and doesn’t conform to the ‘supposed’ view of what a woman should look like, so of course she’s ‘guilty’. What idiots.

Legible Susan // Posted 21 August 2009 at 5:39 pm

I linked to this thread when I posted on this topic: Gender police in athletics

Feminist Avatar // Posted 21 August 2009 at 6:15 pm

I know this me being slightly hopeful… but it may a pychologist is involved in case it turns out she does have some sort of intersex or hormonal condition. For someone who identifies as a woman to suddenly learn that her biology is not as straightforward as first thought could be quite traumatic.

maggie // Posted 21 August 2009 at 6:35 pm

I agree with JenniferRuth except the point that Ms Semenya is being strong about this. ‘I’m not a boy’ is what she is quoted to have said. And that sucks that she should even have to say that.

This has angered me on lots of levels. Bolt can run much faster than his peers and get lauded for it but Semenya gets no praise for her excellent athletic skills. Instead she gets called a cheat. Disgusting.

I hope she keeps her medal and goes on to thrash the records. Well done Ms Semenya. You’re brilliant.

Karen // Posted 21 August 2009 at 7:22 pm

Maybe if we weren’t all divided up for things like athletics events in the first place, maybe these issues wouldnt arise. All of the sexist stereotypes are coming out of the woodwork with even the usually reliable radio 2 chipping in on this one. Scary, if I was to answer some of their sex-test questions on telly lately from people who think they’re funny: Can you fix cars? Yes? Do you wear make-up? No? Do you like Pink? No. Apparently I’m a man on the strength of some of the answers to the jokey-ha-ha-aren’t-we-clever-and-funny sex test questions suggested this week. Total caveman and toilet standard behaviour from lots of our fellow humans with a lot of emphasis on looks and what real women really look like (yeah right). There has been a lot of speculation about women like Annie Lennox and Lady Ga-Ga purely because their looks are more androgynous than say the latest page 3 model. There needs to be a change in attitudes soon or we are going to find ourselves back in the 1950’s, back in the shadow of calendar pin-up ‘girls’, with self-esteems lower than a dacshunds testicles. I really hope Semanya’s critics end up with some serious egg on their faces. Then maybe they might learn something from this appaling episode.

RadFemHedonist // Posted 22 August 2009 at 2:01 am

I think this ties in with all the deeply embedded fear that society has of physically strong women who look muscular, I remember as a child I was afraid to do athletics in case I got small breasts as a result of not having quite so much fat to go on them, and (I am not saying that thin is healthy) it has probably had a detrimental effect on my health, women must be healthy (which actually means not eat when many people say it) but they mustn’t let it stop them from having a womanly figure, Caster Semenya, well done on your excellent running time, you are strong and brilliant.

polly // Posted 22 August 2009 at 11:19 am

There are good reasons for sex segregation in sport which is that male athletes, with higher testosterone levels tend to have on average higher muscle bulk than female athletes ever can- no matter how much training they do – unless they take performance enhancing drugs (anabolic steroids are testosterone basically). That doesn’t mean a woman can’t ever beat a man in sport, but it does mean that currently the best male athletes outperform the best female ones.

So sex testing is legitimate if you have sex segregated sport.

However all the media i have seen have been saying Caster Semenya may “really be a man” when it is perfectly possible that she is intersex and didn’t know this herself. Which wouldn’t mean she’s a man.

And a dishhonourable mention to the Guardian for this one:-

“One of the more common disorders but which only occurs in one in 15,000 births, has made great beauties of women who technically were born male. (There has been unsubstantiated speculation that actors Marlene Dietrich and Greta Garbo had this disorder, although such rumours could easily be explained by people’s discomfort with their androgynous appearance.) Their chromosomes are 46,XY and they have male hormones, but those hormones cannot act because of a mutation in the protein to which they are supposed to bind. “They would look and behave like a girl,” said Arlt”

How exactly do you “behave like a girl? ”


Sonia H // Posted 22 August 2009 at 11:37 am

The issue over Semenyas gender first came up at the African Youth Championships and now resurfaces at Berlin. There is clearly an issue to be resolved. If biologically Semenya is not a woman then imho she should not compete with female athletes as it means she has an unfair natural advantage. The tests will provide resolution to the doubts hopefully conclusively. Until then debate is futile. For me,what is interesting about this episode is that scouting around on various message boards it seems that there is a ground swell of white people whom think that “African women are similar to African men” and are “not as feminine” as their white female counterparts. News to me!! oh and apparently acording to ‘Legible Susan’ we probably can’t attain long flowing femmy locks (my paraphrase) Again news to me and my hair!!!

Feminist Avatar // Posted 22 August 2009 at 12:54 pm

According to something I was reading yesterday, a small number of female athletes have xy chromosones, but because they are not producing testosterone (or no more than XX women) they have no competitive advantage and are allowed to compete. There were apparently 7 women with this condition who competed at the Atlanta Olympics.

What appears to happen is that when they do the doping tests the hormone levels for certain female athletes are not as expected (presumably having higher levels of testosterone), and once drugs are ruled out, this then leads to a sex test.

Of course, it does raise the interesting question of what happens if your XX but still producing ‘too much’ testosterone.

Rita // Posted 22 August 2009 at 4:36 pm

Thanx Laura for that response.

If semenya’s issue came up at the African olympics, it could possibly be that they thought she was male and it was more of a case of cheating rather than the biological side of it as in chromosomes, genes etc… As an african, i could only think of it as clear cut, that is female genitals=female, male genitals=male. And that is how most us are brought up. I am guessing that is how semenya didn’t even think twice about having male genes or chromosomes and so on. Be it, she played with boys and dressed in trousers and acted a boy, probably an equivalent of european tom boy. If she has female genitals, there is no way she would have ever claimed to be a male in such a competetion. This is a case of european culture versus african culture. I think she must be shocked to the core to know that her genitals are not enough to prove she is female. And this is why i am worried about her self esteem.

Lucy // Posted 23 August 2009 at 2:58 pm

Just had to show everyone this ridiculous article by Liz Jones of the Daily Wail:


I’m shocked, but not surprised… An utterly baffling piece.

Legible Susan // Posted 23 August 2009 at 7:16 pm

Sonia H, I’m not referring to your hair, of which I know nothing; I’m talking about Caster Semenya’s.

This post on Womanist Musings documents what I was fumbling towards, with a lot more examples of racist challenges to the identity of Black women athletes.

Gemma // Posted 23 August 2009 at 9:24 pm

I can’t believe she came from a quiet village – now to England with immediate sexist reports about her gender left, right and centre. Things that make me hate this country!- It almost functions on chauvinism.

Laura // Posted 24 August 2009 at 9:29 am

Moderator comment: I’m not going to publish any comments speculating about Semenya’s looks or gender, she’s had enough of that already.

Ruairidh // Posted 25 August 2009 at 12:59 pm

It now seems that the gender test was sought after preliminary results from the heats showed that Semenya had a very high level of testosterone (three times the ‘normal’ female level). This result could be indicative of cheating or an intersex condition. Asking for a gender test therefore seems resonable to me (in the context of sports split by gender).

All those who see racism should note that it’s now coming out that Semenya faced gender allegations and rumours in her early career in South Africa as well.

Much of the commentary (especially outside the sporting press) has been insensitive and offensive and is to be called out as such. However asking for a gender test is a sensible step in the circumstances given her level of testosterone.

P.S. Gemma: The race was in Berlin not England. It was the IAAF that questioned her gender not any English body.

lauredhel // Posted 25 August 2009 at 6:01 pm

Ruairidh: Do you mean three times the average testosterone level, or three times the upper limit of the reference range? Levels as high as 2.5 times the upper limit of the reference range can be found in conditions as common as polycystic ovarian syndrome, and no-one questions whether or not women with PCOS are women. Higher levels can occur in other conditions. Additionally, reference ranges are as fuzzy as hell. In women with no sex-hormone atypicality diagnosis at all, hirsute women have testosterone levels more than three times higher than non-hirsute women.

Levels also vary significantly throughout the day, and throughout the menstrual cycle.

Kez // Posted 25 August 2009 at 8:02 pm

Lauredhel – reports are just saying her testosterone level was “three times what would normally be expected in a female sample” – I don’t think they are getting any more specific than that, but that makes it sound as if it is 3 times the average, rather than the upper limit.

I believe the IAAF are to hold an inquiry into how this situation came to be made public. It’s been horribly badly handled. Gender testing is not actually that uncommon in athletics, but is normally kept confidential, as it should be.

Ruairidh // Posted 26 August 2009 at 9:34 am

I don’t know.

‘Three times normal’ was all the news outlets have reported. I realised this was imprecise as normal wasn’t defined, which was why I put it in quotes. From the way they’re phrased it looks like three times the average level for atheletes tested.

Yes there are bound to be several conditions that could be responsible for this. That’s why they’re running these tests. Although it’s probably fair to say she doesn’t have severe hirsutism.

Kit // Posted 27 August 2009 at 4:27 pm

It seemed from the BBC Sport blog entry I read, Semenya improving *her own* time was what arroused suspicion, and if that’s the case surely a sex test _isn’t_ the most logical one to order in that situation? Apart from the odd commenter on the few news reports I read, no one mentioned it.

Tilly // Posted 5 September 2009 at 5:47 pm

BBC response to my complaint re. The One Show: Dear BBC Viewer

Thank you for your e-mail regarding ‘The One Show’ as broadcast on 20


I understand you were unhappy about the inclusion of a piece on Caster

Semenya and appreciate you felt it was inappropriate and offensive.

We have forwarded your concerns to ‘The One Show’ production team who have

issued the following response:

“We were very careful not in any way to be disrespectful to Caster. We

selected one of the best pictures of her available and did not directly

question her gender ourselves, merely reported that the athletics

authorities – and the world’s Press – were doing precisely that.

The focus of the piece was made very clear indeed – that the International

Association of Athletics Federation said the gender verification tests it

insisted on imposing could take several weeks to deliver results. That

offered potential for some humour that bore no relation to the Caster case

– what else marks a male from female? Viewers responded in generous spirit

with light-hearted observations on the stereotypical habits of both sexes.

Gender differences behaviourally was the issue, not Caster.

To underscore that, studio guest Emilia Fox spoke eloquently about how

unfair the she felt the timing of the federation’s ruling had been to the


I appreciate the strength of your views regarding this matter and can

assure you that I’ve registered your comments on our audience log. This is

the internal report of audience feedback which we compile daily for all

programme makers within the BBC, and also their senior management. It

ensures that your points, and all other comments we receive, are circulated

and considered across the BBC.

Thanks again for taking the time to contact us.


Liam Boyle

BBC Complaints

Rita // Posted 9 September 2009 at 10:41 am

On the one hand i feel abit dissapointed about the make over in a way that she’s been exploited, but on the other hand happy that she has discovered the other part of her and likes it. Judging from her words, ‘now that i know i can look like this, i would like to dress up more often’.

Kez // Posted 9 September 2009 at 12:09 pm

Some awful comments (no surprise there, I guess – why on earth did I read them??) on that Daily Hate article.

Sad that in order to “show she’s a woman” she has to conform to some stereotypical image of femininity – as though there was only one way to be a woman.

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