Monday, August 31, 2009

Gender, sport and race in South Africa

The case of Caster Semenya is fascinating from what you might want to call a 'purely bioethics' point of view. Semenya blew away the field in the women's 800 meters at the world athletics championship in Berlin. In fact, the margin of victory was so great, and the improvements in her recent race times have been so radical, that it makes you suspect some kind of artificial enhancement. But that is not it. Along with these achievements, Semenya's outward appearance (body shape, facial hair, deep voice) have raised the possibility that Semenya is not an enhanced woman, but simply a man. No, that is not right: 'simply' is the wrong choice of words. She may be biologically too much like a man to fairly compete against other women. Which leaves us (as well as the International Association of Athletics Federations or IAAF) with the unsimple question: where do you draw the line for biologically 'man-ish' women in competitive sport?

In South Africa, the question is even more fascinating, or more depressing, depending on your perspective. Caster, after all, is South African, and the debate here, reflecting local realities, turned instanteously to questions of race. The whole sticky biological question was sidelined in favor of another question: is the questioning of Caster's gender racist? A number of prominent government officials were ready to answer in the affirmative, and ventilate their righteous indignation in front of press and cameras. The idea was that Caster's gender would not be in question if she were white; she is being unfairly discriminated against. When it was pointed out that gender tests were applied also to white athletes in the past, some took a new line of argument: that the South African media did not rally sufficiently behind Caster, too easily giving in to suspicions about her gender, and this proving that the media continues to be controlled by whites. According to this view, the Caster Semanya story exposed the South African media as racist, and if you don't want to deemed a racist yourself, it is best to regard Caster as a woman. (A woman, a whole woman, and nothing but a woman.) It is unfortunate that, at least in South Africa, strange new dilemmas about gender and sport have taken a backseat to posturing about race.

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