ESPN, among numerous other sources, reports that The International Amateur Athletic Federation is requiring South African track star Caster Semenya to undergo gender testing after a remarkable performance in the 800-meter race. ESPN’s columnist Mary Buckheit wrote one of the better pieces I’ve seen on the topic:
In reality, what makes this story so sexy to so many is exactly that. We are determined — come hell or high water — to define human beings with binary gender sexing.
Immediately, competitors were calling for her private parts after Semenya had passed them like fence posts. “Just look at her!” fumed Russia’s Mariya Savinova, who finished fifth in the 800, 3.23 seconds behind Semenya. “For me, she’s not a woman,” burned Italy’s Elisa Piccione, who finished sixth, 3.36 seconds behind Semenya.
To me this is particularly odd because of my background as a sports reporter. My general experience in sports was that the more butch a woman appears, the better rapport she will have with athletes, reporters and administrators. Masculinity is the currency of sport. But only to a point.
There’s an undeniable double standard at work in sports. As long as women have competed (and as long as evolving attire has allowed us to see their bodies), people have depreciated and humiliated some of the best female athletes by calling them manly. Their enigmatic strength and athleticism is countered with derisive criticism and gender judgments. Society wants women to be toned, not muscular. That’s weird. It hopes women are athletic, but not too competitive. That’s not cute.
If you get too successful or too caught up in the game, you’ll either be sexualized like Brandi Chastain, whose World-Cup-winning goal was a sub-head to the headlines about her taking off her jersey (a celebratory tradition in soccer); or you’ll be told you can’t possibly be a woman.
We’re asking someone — today, a South African teenager — to justify what we’ve been conditioned to consider male or masculine. We’re asking her for an alibi for her inexplicable athleticism.
This unshakable interrogation at best taints her remarkable achievements, and far worse, it belittles her human existence.
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