Woman or Man?


Caster Semenya
Photo by Jon Connell via Flickr

Anne Muir and Bruce Gulland look at top athlete Caster Semenya. Many people have questioned her sex. Is this fair?

Transcript


Voice 1  

Welcome to Spotlight. I’m Anne Muir.

Voice 2  

And I’m Bruce Gulland. Spotlight uses a special English method of broadcasting. It is easier for people to understand, no matter where in the world they live.

Voice 1  

In 2009, the World Championships in Track and Field were held in Berlin, Germany. There were many excellent runners. But there was one race people were watching very closely. It was the women’s 800-meter run.

Voice 2  

People were watching for Caster Semenya, from South Africa. She had risen quickly to the highest level of running. People wanted to know how she did it. As the women began the final part of the race, Semenya gained the lead and won by over two seconds. This made more people wonder how she got so good, so fast.

Voice 1  

Semenya has short hair. She has a low voice. She has hair on her top lip, above her mouth. And when her running improved quickly, people accused her of really being a man. Today’s Spotlight is on Caster Semenya and sex testing in sports.

Voice 2  

People often use the words “sex” and “gender” to mean the same thing. But that is not correct. Sex means what kind of sex organs a person has. Gender is how a person shows and understands himself or herself. The issue for Caster Semenya was not her gender. She sees herself as a woman. The issue was her sex and what sex organs she had.

Voice 1  

But why is knowing Semenya’s sex important? In sports, men and women are divided. Men have an advantage because they have more testosterone. This is a body chemical that builds muscle. This is why the best male runners are usually faster than the best female runners. If Semenya was male, Semenya would have a natural advantage over female runners. When she won her race by over two seconds, people saw this as evidence that she was really a man.

Voice 2  

Some people suggested an easy solution to the accusations. They said that someone could just look at Semenya’s sex organs. But deciding someone’s sex is not always that easy. Some people have disorders of sexual development, or DSD. And this begins before a person is even born.

Voice 1  

As a child grows inside its mother, it develops body parts at different times. The body parts also move and change. For example, part of boys’ sex organs, the testes, remain up inside the body until one or two months before birth.

Voice 2  

Before a baby is nine weeks old inside its mother, it could be either a boy or a girl. Many people think that our body’s development plan, our chromosomes, make our sex. But this may be only part of the truth. Dr. Ross Tucker explained this for the website “The Science of Sport.” He wrote:

Voice 3  

“We are all told that if you have two X chromosomes, you are female. If you have an X and a Y chromosome, you are male. But it is often not so simple.”

Voice 1  

He explained that all children begin as girls. If a baby is to be male, there is a kind of "switch" turned. When this switch turns, male sexual development begins. The switch is part of the Y chromosome. He continues:

Voice 3  

“Sometimes the switch does not work. Or, it works, but there is a problem that prevents it from having its normal effect. So even with the Y chromosome, it can fail to start male development. And so the child continues to develop as a female. The result is that sex organs are unclear. Other physical things can be mixed up as well. These people are called intersex. And it is difficult to know what to do with them when playing in sports.”

Voice 2  

So, when someone is intersex, you cannot just look at their sex organs to decide on their sex. Some things about them may be male, and some things may be female.

Voice 1  

Many intersex people do not get any advantage from their condition. For example, at the 1996 Olympics, eight women failed a sex test. The Olympic committee permitted all of them to compete because they did not have any advantage. We do not know the names of these people because sex testing is usually a very private matter.

Voice 2  

Unfortunately, Caster Semenya’s testing was only private in some ways. People knew the testing was happening, but they did not know the results. Newspapers and magazines were writing about Semenya. Other athletes were telling her to stop running. It was a very difficult time for her.

Voice 1  

In November 2009, running officials ruled that Semenya could keep her championship prize and the money she won. They also refused to release the results of their testing. She was permitted to run again. She went on to run many races. She won a silver medal at the 2012 Olympics and a gold medal at the 2016 Olympics. But this does not mean that life has been easy for her.

Voice 2  

The IAAF is the international governing body for sports. They decided that there is no scientific evidence that Caster Semenya has any advantage. But people continue to raise questions about her. Dean Eastmond wrote about this for the Independent news organization. He suggested a different reason why people continue to talk about this issue eight years later.

Voice 4  

“People write about what Semenya is rather than what she does. She has suffered through intense questioning and unwanted attention because her femininity and womanhood does not look how we would like it to.”

Voice 1  

Sex and gender are both important parts of every society - and not just in sports. Some people feel uncomfortable if they do not know another person’s sex or gender. But someone’s sex or gender is not who they are as a person. For Semenya, the issue is not about sex or gender. Before her gold medal run in 2016, she said,

Voice 5  

“I think sport is all about loving one another. It is not about discriminating against people. It is not about looking at how people look, how they speak, how they run, it is not about being muscular. It is all about sport. When you walk out of your home you think about performing. You do not think about how your opponent looks.”

Voice 2  

What do you think about this issue? Is it important to label a person by gender and sex? Tell us what you think. You can leave a comment on our website. Or email us at radio@radioenglish.net. You can also comment on Facebook at Facebook.com/spotlightradio.

Voice 1  

The writer of this program was Adam Navis. The producer was Michio Ozaki. The voices you heard were from the United Kingdom and the United States. All quotes were adapted for this program and voiced by Spotlight. You can listen to this program again, and read it, on the internet at www.radioenglish.net. This program is called ‘Woman or Man?’

Voice 2  

Look for our listening app in the Google Play store and in iTunes. We hope you can join us again for the next Spotlight program. Goodbye.

Question:

Do you think men’s and women’s sports should be separated? Or should men and women compete together?

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