Paul Lewis on sport
Paul Lewis is the Herald on Sunday's Sport Editor

Paul Lewis: Runner left in no-man's land


Sport can be cruel. Ask Caster Semenya.

She is the masculine-looking, then-18-year-old woman who won the 800m world championships in Berlin last year with a display of power running that carried her two seconds clear of the field - and ignited controversy when it was revealed she was undergoing gender tests.

She is a world champion with no sponsors. She has been cleared by the IAAF, track and field's world body, but the court of public opinion continues to find her guilty. Corporate sponsors look the other way. They want pretties with womanly curves and no hint of a gender question.

She has been reduced to resorting to Facebook and direct marketing to raise money after two young South Africans felt sorry for her and raised funds over the social networking site. British magazine New Statesman named her in a list of 50 people who matter around the world in 2010. But she obviously doesn't matter all that much.

"We have been to various companies, motor companies, cell phone companies, restaurant chains, a whole range of companies," her manager Tshepo Seema said recently, "but we can't get sponsorship because of the negative publicity in the last couple of months. It's not good for Caster.

"Caster has been cleared to compete as a female athlete, she should get the opportunity for sponsorship. Companies have said there is a lot of uncertainty around Caster. They have said, 'We can't touch her'."

Semenya missed the Delhi Commonwealth Games with a back injury - an absence which removed yet another name athlete from those Games but which may also have helped cripple her career.

It meant she has now been out of the international spotlight for too long. What remains are memories of backbiting comments on her lack of femininity that resurfaced - surprise, surprise - when she re-entered competition this year after 11 months' enforced absence (while the gender controversy was sorted).

When she won her first major race back after being cleared to compete as a woman, the reactions were as predictable as they were sad. Elisa Cusma Piccione of Italy, who competed in the world championship final against Semenya and in her first race back, deflected questions about Semenya in the most recent event. Last year, she had said: "She's not a woman; she's a man."

Canadian Diane Cummins, who ran against Semenya in her comeback, said: "We have levels that we are not allowed to test over, so even if she's a female, she's on the very fringe of the normal female athlete biological composition from what I understand in terms of hormone testing. So from that perspective, I think most of us just feel like we are running against a man - because what we know to be female is a certain testosterone level. And if that isn't the case, they need to change everything."

At the end of a tortuous amount of testing and delays, the IAAF cleared Semenya to compete as a woman. But no explanation was ever given. No definitions were made; no benchmarks set. We still don't know what, in the opinion of science and the IAAF, makes a woman.

That's the problem. Like sports bodies all around the globe, the IAAF tried to handle things by saying nothing. They once again made Semenya a victim, only clearing the way for her to be criticised anew and then shunned. She will always be tainted by the taunts.

Remember Muttiah Muralitharan, the world record test cricket wicket-taker? Murali will always have the naysayers - this writer among them - saying the ICC bent the rules to allow Murali's record to stand, even though past measures would have had him labelled a chucker. Or the heavily-muscled gay French tennis player Amelie Mauresmo, dismissed by Martina Hingis as "like playing against a man"?

These things stick - and all the IAAF have achieved in this sad episode is provide the glue.

They probably felt they had little choice. The field of gender determination is a potential legal minefield. But sports bodies who truly administer their sport air such issues, get the benchmarks out there and defend them against challenges - or adjust them to meet new circumstances. Saying nothing only creates a breeding ground for doubt and cynicism.

The problem is the grey area thrown up by the fact that, in athletics these days, it is possible for a woman to be, technically, a man and yet still compete as a female; the so-called "inter-sex" status.

The old law that women have 46 XX chromosomes and blokes 46 XY chromosomes is wrong. Some people develop a whole range of both; many end up being "inter-sex", neither one nor the other, and develop as a woman or a man depending on hormones and influences, such as parents.

Some women, even beautiful women, are technically men. One in 15,000 births produces a female who has 46 XY chromosomes. They have no male genitalia. They have a vagina but often no uterus. They can have small testicles in the abdomen which are generally surgically removed. Their maleness never develops.

To all intents and purposes they are women. But some would fail a chromosome-based gender test.

At the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, eight women failed sex tests but were all eventually cleared after being proven to be "inter-sex".

But because of the issue's complexity and the difficulty of setting precise benchmarks, Semenya has been left in no-man's land. Literally.

There is a perfectly good argument that her birth gifts entitle her to championship status; just as Usain Bolt's enormous legs give him a stride that makes him a champion; just as Michael Jordan's uncanny ability to hang in the air made him the prince of basketball.

But the corporates aren't buying it. Semenya will not starve - she gets a salary from the South African Government but it is no fat cat thing. For a world champion track and field athlete, this is an almost unprecedented situation.

She won't starve but her career might. All because the IAAF, who meant well, didn't solve the problem and didn't set the rules.

- Herald on Sunday

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