- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 22, 2009

Running into gray areas

In sports, as in life, things usually work according to what philosophers call dialectics.

Either you’re ahead or behind, winner or loser, good or bad.

These opposing forces seem to be everywhere. But as the world track and field championships in Berlin showed this week, some situations are not cut-and-dried at all.

Caster Semenya, a chiseled 18-year-old from South Africa, captured the women’s 800 meters Wednesday by a stunning margin of more than two seconds. Easy enough. She won the gold medal; everyone else settled for something less.

It was far from being that clear-cut, though.

The International Association of Athletics Federations revealed it was conducting a complex series of tests to determine something that would seem to be, well, obvious: whether Semenya could compete as a woman.

Some had no problem judging Semenya on appearance.

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

For now, the IAAF is giving the benefit of the doubt to Semenya, an unknown who burst onto the world-class scene and seized the gold in the 800 by lopping seven seconds off her top time last year.

In the meantime, the organization says it may need weeks to answer what, at first glance, seems to be a basic yes-or-no question. In reality it’s not that simple. The evaluation will include chromosome testing, a gynecological exam, X-rays, a study of her medical history — perhaps much more.

Such testing used to be mandatory at the Olympics, but it was discontinued in 1999 because of questions about ethics and accuracy. At the 1996 Atlanta Games, eight athletes failed tests but were later cleared.

The problem is that the female-male line can be blurred beyond determination, whether because of naturally high testosterone levels, a chromosomal disorder or one of several other conditions. And now, as the IAAF reviews her case, Semenya finds herself stuck in the no-woman’s-land of an issue so often considered to be unquestionably unambiguous.

“If there’s a problem and it turns out that there’s been a fraud… that someone has changed sex, then obviously it would be much easier to strip results,” IAAF spokesman Nick Davies said. “However, if it’s a natural thing and the athlete has always thought she’s a woman or been a woman, it’s not exactly cheating.”

He said what?

“[Expletive], no. That was hard enough for two years. You think I’d want to do that for a month? Coming off Tommy John?” — Mets reliever Billy Wagner on whether he would waive his no-trade clause to return to the Phillies

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