Semenya: The mystery grows
The South African athlete did take a gender test before the World Championships, and the results alarmed the team doctor
Sunday 20 September 2009
The saga of Caster Semenya, the women's world 800m champion whose gender is under detailed and forensic questioning, burst into renewed and sorry life yesterday. It was revealed that, contrary to repeated denials by South African officials, Semenya underwent gender tests in Pretoria before the world championships. The team doctor was sufficiently concerned to recommend she did not compete.
This advice – and qualms about her expressed to the South Africans by the International Association of Athletics Federation (IAAF) – were ignored; 18-year-old Semenya competed, and every shred of her own privacy and intimacy are now a matter of worldwide conjecture.
The South African tests reportedly found she had internal testes and produced very high levels of testosterone for a woman. The results of the post-race IAAF tests are expected in November. The IAAF has declined to confirm, or deny, reports in an Australian paper that its tests found that she has male and female characteristics.
News of the pre-championship tests emerged in leaked emails between Athletics South Africa (ASA) officials. Conducted at a Pretoria clinic on 7 August by Oscar Shimange, a doctor specialising in obstetrics and gynaecology, they were apparently triggered by an IAAF email which raised concerns about Semenya's gender, just weeks before the championships. Reports that Semenya was duped into attending by being told these were a routine drugs test seem unlikely, especially as she was counselled about them by ASA member and psychologist Laraine Lane.
South African papers have reported that when Semenya was in Berlin, the Pretoria clinic called the team doctor, Harold Adams, and said the test results were "not good". Dr Adams than reportedly called a meeting with fellow ASA officials and advised her withdrawal, but was overruled.
Doubts over Semenya's gender have caused much offence and anger in South Africa, with some leaders claiming these were motivated by racism. The minister for women and children has lodged a complaint to the UN about the IAAF's treatment of Semenya and there is now a growing clamour for Leonard Chuene, president of ASA, to resign. Yesterday, he apologised, and said the denials were an "error of judgement". He said: "I believed at the time my consistent denials would help protect her."
At a press conference during which he was at times angry, emotional and contradictory, Mr Chuene also claimed that the IAAF asked him to get Semenya to fake an injury once in Berlin so that she could be withdrawn and the matter hushed up. He refused.
This weekend, Semenya continues to train, and prepare for end-of-year exams. Yet, whatever her legitimacy to compete as a woman, she is now, through no fault of her own, a teenager who finds that the geography and chemistry of her anatomy are now a matter of bar-room banter throughout the world. A medal seems scant consolation.
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