Jim Hopkins on current issues

Jim Hopkins is a Herald columnist

Jim Hopkins: Olympic answer to Treaty grumps

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PM and Maori Party finally hold their meeting - news

Let's make a rash assumption. Let's suppose there are, hidden from view in the teeming mass of establishment think-alikes, a few lonely souls, a smattering of academics, bureaucrats or even politicians, who are curious to know why most of the rancorous proles who fund their bold endeavours would happily sell the Waitangi Tribunal to Chinese investors tomorrow if they got the chance.

Granted, there's nothing to suggest such freaks of nature exist, but if they do and if they really would like to understand why they can't get the groundlings on to their Treaty page, they need only watch the Olympics and all will be revealed.

A parallel drama is about to unfold in London which, while superficially different, will address the same vexed matter now exercising us. The controversy will definitely involve one athlete, and possibly more.

But it will surely swirl around sport's best known "intersex" athlete, South African runner Caster Semenya. Three years ago, after she won a world championship 800 metre race by a 2-second margin, her rivals rounded on the "boyish" runner.

"These kind of people should not run with us," one complained. "For me, she's not a woman. She's a man."

Well, no, she's not. Not officially. After being "subjected to unwarranted and invasive scrutiny of the most intimate and private details of my being", Ms Semenya was allowed to keep her 800m medal and cleared to run at the Olympics.

And, apparently, there'll be other female athletes competing "after undergoing treatment to make them less masculine".

As a result of rare conditions like hyperandrogeny, Olympic officials are now trying "to quantify - and regulate - the hormonal difference between male and female athletes". Which is entirely as you'd expect, however awkward the debate may be for individuals and societies, too.

When all's said and done, human states like gender - and race - must have some basis in biological fact if they're to have any meaning. Neither is an absolute, obviously, but at some point along the continuum, the nature of our nature changes.

Not at a personal level, perhaps. You can be whoever you want to be in the privacy of your own brain. If, for example, you're convinced that one of your great-great-grandparents was abducted by space aliens then you're welcome to call yourself a Martian.

And, yes, you are a Martian. But only in part - one tenth, a fifth, whatever. You're more besides, as are we all. Making one part of us the whole is genetic imperialism and biological nonsense. It's as daft as calling a runner with a bushy beard and undescended testicles 100 per cent female.

The fact is, centuries of intermarriage have produced a hybrid globe, a polyglot planet, a splendid array of blended peoples guaranteed to give the IOC enormous grief should entry to Olympic events ever be determined by ethnicity.

They'd have the devil's own job deciding under whose racial banner the fruit of Celto-Roman-Anglo-Saxon-French-Polynesian-South African loins could compete. And, if they were compelled to decide, in matters ethnic, as with gender, they'd have no alternative but to rely on the logic of the genes. It wouldn't matter who you felt you were, it would be your DNA that determined the matter.

While Hitler's legacy, and the human tendency to be condescending and prejudiced make us uncomfortable about any such classification, it's precisely what the sporting powers are doing now to distinguish between male and female athletes.

And it's how our parliament determined electoral entitlements until 1975. But when it became clear that the popular practice of intermarriage was dramatically reducing the number of people able to demonstrate they were 50 per cent Maori or more, jeopardising the future of the Maori seats, the law was changed quick smart so those with any Maori ancestors could vote.

This nifty gerrymander preserved the seats and the rest is history. Trouble is, from the proles' perspective, that 1975 change in entitlement, which also applies to the various pieces of Treaty legislation that have since been enacted, seems to substitute a fact with a feeling. And they're not sure that's fair.

They feel biology and benefit may not entirely tally any more. They feel there are issues of equity and entitlement here, as there are in Olympic competition. They feel that things have got ever so slightly out of kilter. By way of analogy, and substituting penalty for privilege, it's a bit like telling some hapless motorist in the dock, "You're 10 per cent responsible for the accident, so you'll pay 100 per cent of the costs."

So, in the unlikely event a handful of academics, bureaucrats and even politicians do want to understand why folk become grumblesome and peevish whenever issues like the ownership of water arise, here's hoping this helps.

Just think Caster Semenya, folks, and you're on the right track.

- NZ Herald

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