No-one questions Usain Bolt

Usain Bolt is a phenomenal athlete. He is fast, way fast and humble too. My problem is not with Usain Bolt.

Caster Semenya is fast, way fast and it would seem, too, that she is a phenomenal athlete. But first, apparently, she has to prove herself “entirely female”. The problem is she could be “entirely female” and still have an advantage over her competitors because her body produces more testosterone than they do. She could have something like PCOS. She may have none of these and just be really fast. My problem is that she has to prove it, whereas Usain Bolt just is.

Categories: arts & entertainment


22 replies

  1. I don’t know – clear rules have to be made and enforced regarding competitive sport, one of the most obvious being a split between male/female events.
    If rules aren’t clear then the focus in sports would be less on the events themselves, but on incessant legal contestation over the winners and losers.
    Short of calling for an end to the split between male/female events in sports, what else could be done to avoid cases like this?
    Surely when athletes like Usain Bolt and Caster Semenya enter into competitive events, they must be aware that rules will be enforced and that tests of this nature might be carried out? It’s part of the job.

  2. I don’t think either Caster or her coach or family have any issue with the testing, and I think it has already been carried out. I have an issue with the fact that Usain Bolt is allowed to be viewed as just really fast (allowing for drug testing) but that a really fast woman (who has presumably passed the tests to prove her ‘femaleness’) has to prove herself all over again just because she is out running competitors in the same way as her male counterpart.
    In googling this I discovered that testing of female athletes was pretty standard up until about 10 years ago. It would seem that they have always had to prove themselves.

  3. I’ve already heard some questioning about whether Usayn Bolt is taking performance enhancing drugs, so the questions are just different.
    Which is still partly the point – I image that both of them are being tested for all the performance enhancers, just like all the other medal-winning athletes alongside the random testing programs. But only Semenya is being gender tested, and that’s what the media is focussing on, because that’s a much rarer test.
    Nobody is questioning that an elite male athlete at world competition level is indeed male – he’s right on the edge of the Bell curve for men, so (a) they can be very confident that he is almost certainly a man, and (b) if he was in fact a woman he would not be considered to have an unfair advantage over the other athletes against whom he is competing.
    I’m concerned for Semenya that this has all played out so publicly. The sporting officials have handled this all very badly, IMO.

  4. I believe that Semenya has not previously had a chromosome test, Mindy. So she isn’t having to prove herself “again”, this is the first time it’s actually come to this point for her. Once this test has established her as XX she should never have to be tested like this again.

  5. Sorry TT I wasn’t clear – I think they did the test before she ran in her last race in Berlin, but they don’t have the results yet. As you say it has all been badly handled and should have been sorted out well before this. Had her appearance been more acceptably feminine I think this would have been avoided. I hope that the media covers it if it is found she suffers from hirsutism and that’s all.

  6. I thought of this today because of that bubblehead over at that other blog opining that (strikes pose) “To be a man is traditionally supposed to be something one must strive to accomplish. To be a woman is the natural result of being a female human unless you’re lacking in some way.”
    While this poor girl was being invasively tested for extra bits, rather than some kind of “lack”. Can’t win!

  7. What has annoyed me the most is the focus on her appearance and all the reinforcement of stereotypical feminine beauty stuff that goes with it. Many, many women have facial hair. All athletes distort their bodies through training – and an atypical physique is often an advantage. And I do agree it has been badly handled – her privacy doesn’t seem to have even remotely come into it!

  8. Male athletes do get questioned, but more about their freakish bodies and bizarre abilities. After the “interesting” behaviour of various Soviet bloc countries in the past wrt to “female” athletes and the ongoing questions about MTF transsexuals, it’s no surprise that people ask questions about any stunning female athlete. Mishandling the publicity is also common.
    And as mentioned, that’s the whole point of competition – find the freaks and watch them perform. So asking why we get freaks performing is missing the point. If you want real amusement, Neroli Fairhall was accused of having an unfair advantage because she was in a wheelchair and winning archery medals.
    FWIW there are sports that have an “open” class, often with a separate “women’s” class. Not uncommonly they switch to male/female at the point where a woman looks like winning the open class.

  9. I don’t know if it’s still true, but at the 1976 Olympics, every single female athlete was tested. I remember 1976 specifically because they made one exception for Princess Anne because she’d been raised in the public eye since birth and there was no way she’d snuck off to have gender reassignment. I remember thinking that it was a bit odd to test anybody in equestrian because men and women compete equally .

  10. There was a lot of speculation about Jarmila Kratochvílová’s records given her perceived lack of feminine characteristics too.
    The ugly speculation about Semenya is unfortunate but even if she looked like Barbie, she’d be in for a lot of testing and doubt.
    Her improvement in the 800 is astonishing.
    In July 2008, she didn’t get out of the 1st round in the World Junior Championships but turned in a 2:04.23 at the Commonwealth Junior Games in October.
    In January 2009, she won the 800m at the African Junior Championships in 1:56.72.
    In Berlin, she ran a 1:55.45 to win at the World Championships.
    Coming from nowhere to win junior championships is pretty amazing. Coming from nowhere to win world championships in a little over a year is hard to believe.
    Taking 1.72 seconds off your PR in a season at the international level and turning in a world best time is amazing. Taking almost 9 seconds off your PR in a year at the national or international level stretches credulity.
    And then there is the age issue. The top of the fields in 800m and the 1500m that Semenya also does well in are typically in the mid 20s. Kratochvílová set the current world record at 32 and the youngest world record holder in the 800m since 1968 was 20.
    The problem with Semenya is not her masculine appearance, it’s that there is too much amazing in too short a time for too young an athlete.
    Bolt has come in for a fair amount of suspicion himself. Shaving 0.3 off the 200m record and setting 100m records when coasting to the finish at the tender age of 23 (as of today) will excite comment. But Bolt was turning in 45 second 400m times at 15 and 20.1 seconds in the 200m at 17.
    My guess is that both Bolt and Semenya are doping.

    • @warriner,
      You’re right, it’s the astonishing improvement in such a short time that is the major marker for testing. They should both be thoroughly tested.
      The gender issue is more with how the media has framed their reportage. Semenya could simply be one of those women with facial hair who, for her own reasons, refuses to remove it in the same way that most other hirsute women do. Her improvement could easily be to do with doping rather than chromosomes, and actually – if it was chromosomes, wouldn’t the improvement have kicked in a couple of years ago? Around about 15-16 is when the first muscular strength/power divide between boys and girls really manifests, surely?

  11. Yes, the sex/gender issue is vexing but the media coverage is operating in a factual vacuum and so speculation rules the day.
    Caster Semenya: male or female? has a nuanced take on the subject and makes an interesting point about the controversy.
    Sports Scientists lays the blame on the Athletics South Africa for not testing Semenya after she ran 1:56 earlier this year. A 1:56 meant that she would have a pretty good shot at reaching the finals and winning and ASA should have anticipated the allegations that were floated. They did not and so left it to the IAAF to handle the testing. But the results of testing would only be known until long after the championships were run and thus creating room for the media speculation.
    If ASA had done the testing before the world championships, it probably would not have entirely dampened uninformed media speculation about Semenya but at least responsible reporting could have pointed to the testing. Semenya would still appear to be unusual but, as Moz notes, competition at that level is pretty much a freak show anyway.
    What I have not seen proven is that the IAAF mishandled Semenya’s case either in testing or communication.
    At the end of the day, the results will be certified and Semenya will have many more chances to compete or she will be DQed like so many before her.

  12. Someone did explain to me once that the best way to conceal doping with women would be to start when girls hit puberty and have naturally high androgens. Doping at this stage raises what will become their “natural” androgen levels to a point where doping as an adult will be better concealed. I have no idea whether this is the case with Semenya and I think she’s been exceptionally badly treated by the athletics authorities. The tests were requested back in the juniors when she produced that inexplicable 8 second improvement so why reveal them publicly now? Whether or not conclusive “gender” can be established … is a matter of opinion which is why the entire testing process is taking so long.

  13. Mmm…bear with me. A little scotch-ified. I just thought that in relation to gender and sport the two articles I read this week might be of interest to you Mindy (I must confess that I’ve been absorbed with law readings and blogging stuff and have totally missed this whole story):,6610,s1-4-404-19640-1,00.html

  14. And transphobic arsehattery from Greer at the Grauniad. (courtesy of nataliaantonova and emmybunny)

  15. Regarding chromosomes:
    This is no simple “yes or no” question. Your chromosomes can be arranged in several different ways, as can your hormones, as can your genitals. Nature has less of a black-and-white view of sex than we do.
    A chromosomal test would not be conclusive, because there are women who have XY chromosomes but were born appearing outwardly female, and there are also people with XXY and just X. (sometimes indicated XO) There is also something called Androgen Insensitivity Syndrom that would cause a fetus with XY chromosomes to develop as outwardly female. And by “outwardly female” one can assume that means with a female physique and female physical capabilities.
    There are of course people who are trans, whose chromosomes would not match their gender either.
    I do love (and by love I mean hate) that a woman who excels athletically must be a man. So sez society.

  16. No… the issue is CHEATING not gender-appropriate achievement.

    • This could be a textbook example of a both/and situation, DEM. The issue is BOTH cheating (athletics federation response) AND gender-appropriate achievement (media response).

  17. Fair enough, TigTog. I tend to ignore the media response as it’s impossible for me to take seriously.

  18. I totally agree in comparing the cases of Bolt and Semenya. He smashes world records to rapturous acclaim, she wins to stunned silence. No matter the result of the testing, doing it in under a media microscope means it has been badly handled and she badly treated.
    An XY result will highlight the inadequacy of standard sporting classes – or the inflexible way they are enforced. XX I think demonstrates the limits popularly placed on the possible physical prowess of women – and then if she is proven to be genetically female, her ‘femininity’ will be shot and paradoxically she’ll be considered not wholly woman. I’m thinking of Amelie Mauresmo who can be discussed in freakish terms b/c of her size and ability etc.

  19. Oh Germaine, Germaine, why do you always break my heart so?
    (It wouldn’t be such an issue if the Australian Gen Public didn’t have this peculiar idea that Germs = feminism)

  20. Helen @ 6 I’m pretty sure she was being ironic. Did you check out her gravatar?

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