Coach: Gender Concerns Reasonable Because Runner "Looks Like A Man"

Unfortunately, South African runner Caster Semenya isn't the first exceptional female athlete to have her femaleness questioned. But her coach's comments make her case one of the most upsetting.

The 18-year-old Semenya is slated to run the 800m for South Africa in tonight's World Championships, but, says Australian newspaper The Age, her "physique and powerful style have sparked speculation in recent months that she may not be entirely female." An International Association of Athletics Federations spokesman says, "At this moment in time we do not have any evidence to stop her running," but according to the Daily Mail, gender testing has already begun. Some say she could still be disqualified.

Perhaps even more disturbing than subjecting a runner to medical tests for no other reason than her physical appearance and athletic prowess is her coach Michael Seme's reaction to all this. He says,

We understand that people will ask questions because she looks like a man. It's a natural reaction and it's only human to be curious. People probably have the right to ask such questions if they are in doubt. But I can give you the telephone numbers of her room-mates in Berlin. They have already seen her naked in the showers and she has nothing to hide.

Of course, there's nothing wrong with "looking like a man" — if, for instance, you're transgender. But for a coach to say it of a teenage athlete who has always identified as female is pretty insensitive. He should be protecting her from the media's curiosity, not excusing it. And as far as his "showers" comment goes, even seeing her naked probably won't be enough to satisfy her critics. Says The Science of Sport (via Deadspin),

[E]ven genetic testing cannot confirm male or female. In fact, it is so complex that to do proper sex determination testing, you have to take a multi-disciplinary approach, and make use of internal medicine specialists, gynecologists, psychologists, geneticists and endocrinologists. I am afraid that dropping your pants is not proof at all.

As we pointed out last summer, gender testing is invasive, and can result in disqualifying athletes who are intersexed or have chromosomal abnormalities. Whether or not these abnormalities make women better runners is another question, but they don't make them into men. Deadspin's Tommy Craggs has a good point when he wonders what "entirely female" even means in the context of sports. The IAAF and other athletics governing bodies need to come up with a workable definition that's fair to intersexed athletes — and that definition shouldn't be "looks feminine to us and isn't threateningly good." Unfortunately, that's the definition Semenya's being subjected to — and her coach isn't helping.

She's The Man? [Deadspin]
World Athletics Sensation: Claims Emerge That South Africa's Female 800m Hope Caster Semenya Is Really A MAN! [Daily Mail]
Caster Semenya - Is She Really A He? [morethanthegames]
IAAF Isn't Sure South African Runner Is Female [AP, via MSNBC]
Athlete Could Be Disqualified Over Gender Doubts [The Age]
Is She Really a HE? Women's 800m Gold Medal Favourite Takes Gender Test Hours Before World Championship Race [Daily Mail]
Caster Semenya's Sex In Doubt, As Reports Of Sex Testing And Potential Disqualification Surface [The Science of Sport]

Earlier: Beijing Officials To Test Female Olympic Hopefuls For Sex Abnormalities