Caster Semenya has human rights?


Friday, May 10, 2019

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Caster Semenya has been treated as less than human because of naturally high testosterone levels. Now things are worse with the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) rule which requires her to take hormones if she wants to compete. Can the IAAF decide who is female? She is not the only female athlete to face this, but what other biological anomaly will it proscribe? Will Pheidippides, the fifth century BCE runner from Marathon to Athens, be censored posthumously for testosterone?

Semenya has a disorder of sex development (DSD) discovered as an adult as with some in sport and other careers, yet few are winners. This 28-year-old was abused, confused and probed from she was a teenager; her career and life have been disrupted; and now she's ordered to take hormones to be like others. Do we dumb down an exceptional student or ask others to raise their game? This Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) ruling against Semenyas appeal is frightening for what it might presage.

Many Jamaicans are elated at the ruling but Semenya's crime is to use her God-given body to run, so recall conversations about Usain Bolt and his gift. Many spoke of yellow yam; of slavery derived; high twitch, muscle mutation. We opined that this path would give eugenics oxygen, and if they prevailed he would compete against genetically modified diaspora blacks only. Continental Africans and whites would have their own natural Olympics. The claim of slavery changing bodies is a slippery slope. Did it affect our brains too? We grieve for Semenya; a black girl, born poor, poorly educated, but had a tom-boy talent, and made a career which the IAAF will end. Unacceptable!

Florence Joyner (Flo Jo), the fastest woman ever, won three gold medals in the 1988 Olympics. She abruptly retired and died at age 38. Was she gifted?

Countervailing hormone therapy is the order by the IAAF, and she is refusing as others did. Sex is binary at the extremes (male, female); but quite fluid in-between as woman was made from man. So to draw a line on the indeterminate is cruel and arbitrary. The IAAF wins, but what of the individual; be modified by drugs or exit the sport?

DSD athletes are some seven per 1,000 among elite female athletes ( Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism, March 2015), yet few get top medals, so should she be allowed to serve her time and move on? Let's look at context!

What makes a top athlete? Testosterone? Well, I had a lot of it but “also ran” every sports day. It takes mental toughness, desire, training, diet, obey the coach, yet innovate. Testosterone does not a top athlete make! Will the IAAF make more such proscriptions? So a leggy athlete wins events regularly and it finds she has above average female thigh and femur metrics. Might it order amputation to get them down to average? Do big feet, hypermobility (double-jointed) help a swimmer, or even to master routines a normal gymnast finds difficult? What about slow build-up of lactic acid or superior lung capacity? Most DSD folk will not be athletes, yet are unstoppable at a Carnival road march — does it matter?

What of her future? Is Semenya a freak with testosterone three times most women? Is she roadkill on our path to medals glory? Or is she just is a real person with feelings, who has trained for her job, loves it, and makes her family proud?

Hormone therapies are for intersex people willingly moving from male to female or vice versa. They make you pre-menstrual and sick all year. Will the IAAF pay for treatment; pain and suffering? What of future earnings, mental health, physical health, and social stigma? Semenya does not want to be someone else. Do you?

What of her human rights? To her mother she is the best; to South Africa a hero; to the IAAF she is to be excised; and to many Jamaicans she blocks our medal tally. We are a large, black-ruled, 92.1 per cent black nation. We lead Africa in the West and are the main beneficiaries of Semenya's misfortune. Do we gloat? That white people make rules for black bodies in this 21st century should concern us. We were once a global thought leader — Marcus Garvey, Leonard Howell, Michael Manley — and we stood by South Africa, now rich and black-governed.

Caster Semenya married long-term partner Violet Raseboya some two years ago and ministers Edmund Bartlett and Olivia “Babsy” Grange should invite them for a week in paradise. Rhodes scholar Dudley Thompson, QC, defended Jomo Kenyatta of the Mau Mau against imperialists who were about to put-down a daughter of Africa for being herself. Might a Jamaican Queen's Counsel walk with Semenya to the highest court and secure her human rights? Stay conscious!

Franklin Johnston, D Phil (Oxon), is a strategist and project manager; Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Logistics and Transport (UK); and lectures in logistics and supply chain management at Mona School of Business and Management, The University of the West Indies. Send comments to the Observer or

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