What Does Caster Semenya's Sex Teach Us About Competitive Culture?

Semenya, regardless of gender, represents an important disruption in a culture whose M.O. is oversimplification.

The issue of Caster Semenya’s sex-testing has been dissected from seemingly every angle. The Science of Sport blog called questions about the runner’s gender “a problem that was foreseeable, and one that [Athletics South Africa], had they had their ducks in a row, would have been able to pre-empt.” The AP published an article in which Semenya’s sexuality was referred to as “a medical condition that blurs her gender and gives her an unfair advantage.”

Even Semenya’s coach, Michael Seme, has sounded off. “People probably have the right to ask such questions if they are in doubt,” he said. “I can give you the telephone numbers of her roommates in Berlin. They have already seen her naked in the showers and she has nothing to hide.”

What all of these narratives share is a tendency to only recognize Semenya’s sex in oppositional terms – that is, as totally male or totally female. The resultant “debate” has become more of a collective assault on sexual ambiguity than anything else. And though much could be said (appropriately) about the fluidity of gender constructions and sexuality here, I think the most important point is ideological.

Indeed, the dichotomized thinking – ‘male’ and ‘female,’ ‘eligible’ and ‘disqualified,’ ‘winner’ and ‘loser’ – swirling around Semenya is a linchpin of all competitive sports. Androgyny, be it physiological or simply perceived (Semenya’s tests are not yet completed), is like a draw: It leaves both sides confused, unsatisfied and ultimately uncomfortable. 

This is what makes Semenya so important. The results of her tests are actually irrelevant; more pertinent is the way her androgyny has put the sports world’s linear, organized mindset into an ideological full Nelson – the way she has placed a mirror to a culture nourished by absurd oversimplification.

Caster Semenya, regardless of her sex, represents a befuddling challenge to a whole world’s established vocabulary. The fact that she’s the fastest female 800 runner in this very same world comes (unfortunately for those obsessed with wins, losses, boys and girls) in second place.

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