- The Washington Times - Friday, August 28, 2009

Gender is not always an either-or proposition, one divided into strict hues of blue or pink.

And so it is with South African half-miler Caster Semenya, the androgynous South African who won the women’s 800-meter run in the world track and field championships in Berlin last week.

There’s something about Caster.

They are not merely saying it. They are yelling it after the previously unknown runner blitzed the field, prompting rivals and observers alike to question the veracity of her gender.

That is because the 18-year-old Semenya has an overly muscular build, narrow hips, deep voice and boyish face. That is because she jars the notion of what constitutes gender.

In response to skepticism before the world championships, the International Association of Athletics Federations ordered the South African athletics federation to conduct an elaborate series of tests on Semenya to resolve the dispute.

The undertaking includes a gynecologist, an endocrinologist, a psychologist, an internal-medicine specialist and a gender expert.

That possibly will not end the controversy, even if it is determined that Semenya is all woman or more woman than man.

Pierre Weiss, the IAAF general secretary, said the testing was deemed necessary because of “ambiguity, not because we believe she is cheating.”

Predictably enough, South Africa’s athletic lords are taking the inquiry personally.

Gideon Sam, president of South Africa’s Olympic governing body, took aim at the feverish speculation that has had an unseemly quality to it.

“We condemn the way she was linked with such speculation and allegation, especially on a day she ran in the final of her first major world event,” he said.

The furor is crystallizing an issue that is not always so simple, so clear-cut. There are the gender-variant among us, the intersexuals who do not neatly fit the Western notion of what is masculine or feminine.

There are other differences in the genders as well, some more subtle than others.

The everyday testosterone level of men may be four times greater than it is in females, but that is an average. There are statistical deviations. Hormone levels can be all over the place.

A Penn State study in 2002 showed how the testosterone levels of both genders increased before an athletic competition.

Curiously enough, the study revealed that the testosterone levels in women increased by 24 percent before a competition, while it increased by only 9 percent in men. That surprising gap became even greater once the event was under way. Women increased their testosterone levels by 49 percent, men just 15 percent.

The intrusive dissection of Semenya is intended to find whether she has some biologically induced advantage over her rivals. If so, what would that mean? And when is it the domain of a governing body to determine what is fair or unfair, so long as an athlete is passing every drug test and came by the advantages through natural means?

The naturally unfair would be Shaquille O’Neal, to bring up a familiar athlete.

O’Neal’s opponents might be inclined to question the fairness of his massive frame. His body, after all, played an essential role in his one-time dominance.

Rivals of swimmer Michael Phelps might wonder about his flippers that double as feet.

They give him an incredible advantage in the water, however natural they are.

Semenya’s rivals have not been kind.

An Italian runner objected to Semenya in mean-spirited fashion.

“These kind of people should not run with us,” Elisa Cusma said. “For me, she’s not a woman. She’s a man.”

Cusma presumably handed out gender-specialist business cards to reporters while dispensing her precious insights.

Semenya has passed all her doping tests.

Not that passing a doping test is an indication of being clean, as we know all too well from the scandal-marred sport.

Everyone in track and field is guilty until proven innocent.

Semenya carries the added burden of not looking the part of her gender.

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