Gender Dispute Of World Athlete Takes Interesting Turn South African runner Caster Semenya won the 800-meter title at the World Championships in Berlin this summer. Not long after, Semenya's success was called into question after a gender-test inconclusively proved she was a woman. Now, the IAFF, which governs track and field, has reportedly negotiated a deal to allow Semenya to keep her title. But the debate over Semenya's gender raised many questions about the science of defining male and female. Guest host Jennifer LUdden talks with Ariel Levy, who recently who recently wrote The New Yorker article "Either/Or: Sports, Sex and the case of Caster Semenya."
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Gender Dispute Of World Athlete Takes Interesting Turn

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Gender Dispute Of World Athlete Takes Interesting Turn

Gender Dispute Of World Athlete Takes Interesting Turn

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There may be a resolution soon for the South African runner who has endured a months-long global debate about her gender.

In August, Caster Semenya won the 800 meter title at the World Championships in Berlin, but soon after, some were calling for her medal to be revoked amid questions about whether she is female.

The South African Sports Ministry claims it's worked out a deal with the IAAF - that's the governing body of Track and Field. It would reportedly allow Semenya to keep her championship, though the International Association of Athletics Federations has not confirmed any agreement. Now, we should warn you, this conversation may contain sensitive language for young listeners.

Writer Ariel Levy traveled to South Africa to examine the plight of Caster Semenya, and the difficult science of determining gender. Her article in the current issue of the New Yorker magazine is called, ´┐ŻEither/Or: Sports, Sex, and the Case Of Caster Semenya.´┐Ż Ariel Levy joins us from our New York bureau. Welcome.

Ms. ARIEL LEVY (Columnist, The New Yorker): Thanks for having me.

LUDDEN: Now before we get into the science of gender, let's talk about some of the politics surrounding the story. When this first began, many South Africans felt that Semenya was really being unfairly challenged by these European sports authorities. It was portrayed kind of as an us-versus-them, but as you reveal in your article, one of the South African officials involved was the one who actually authorized gender testing of Semenya. Tell us about that.

Ms. LEVY: Well, it's very complicated because, I mean, a huge part of the reason that South Africans, particularly black South Africans, have rallied behind Caster Semenya with so much fervor, now a lot of that has to do with them feeling like this has very queasy echoes of white Europeans - or white Africans for that matter, if you consider them that - telling black South Africans who've grown up thinking they're one thing, hey, all of a sudden, we're telling you you're something else because that's, of course, how Apartheid worked.

The confusing element, as you said, is that this isn't just coming from white Europeans. The man who was the president, until very recently, of Athletics South Africa, his name is Leonard Chuene, is black, is from Limpopo, the same region as Caster Semenya, and he was the one who initially authorized gender verification tests, as they call it.

LUDDEN: And has now been castigated for this.

Ms. LEVY: He's been pretty much fired, but I mean, I don't know that he really had the option not to test her. He has to follow protocol, and that's the protocol.

LUDDEN: Well, you write about how this science of determining gender, whether it's, you know, for a sports event or whatever, has changed dramatically over the years. And one expert tells you science is actually making this whole process a lot more difficult, not easier. Explain that.

Ms. LEVY: Well, the more we learn, the more impossible we seem to find it to say, ultimately, this is what makes a person male or female. You know, in 98 percent-plus of the population, it's easy to tell. They're female or they're male, and there's just not a lot of confusion about it, but 1.7 percent of the population is intersexed, has some, you know, physically observable sexual ambiguity in terms of their genitals or has chromosomal variability.

All sorts of things can happen. A person can have an XY chromosome and a vagina. A person who's grown up his whole life thinking he was man, who has a penis, can one day go into a doctor and say I don't know why I can't get my wife pregnant, they take a look, and they find out he has ovaries and a womb.

I mean, this is reality. How do you say, ultimately, is this person male or is this person female? And what the people who have done the most research on this all told me was you can't tell. There is no one measure.

LUDDEN: You write about some pretty humiliating moments that Caster Semenya has gone through. I mean, you know, being carted off to the bathroom to have people look at her, officials, you know, from competing teams - at one point during the competition in Berlin, a TV reporter asked her about this whole gender controversy, and you describe how she visibly panics and ends up walking away. From the time that you spent in South Africa, what do you think? How is all of this affecting her life?

Ms. LEVY: Since she was very young, people have said to Caster Semenya, you're different, you don't look like a normal little girl. I think that she became as accustomed as a person could to, you know, going to her races, and then when the other team of little girls came, inevitably, one of the other little girls would say, you know, we don't believe that you're a girl. And she had a shorthand for this. She would just say to her teachers or her coaches, they're doubting, which meant, okay, we've got to go the bathroom, and I have to show them my vagina so that they'll believe I'm a girl so that we can get on with the race.

But I think that this business of, okay, it's not just a matter of having them peek in your pants, it's actually, we're going to have you analyzed by all these experts, and at the end of the day, we're not going to conclude, as we always have in the past, you're a girl. We're going to say, you're something else, this needs further scrutiny. I think that's new, and I think that's horrible for her.

LUDDEN: You finally, briefly and unexpectedly, were able to speak with Caster Semenya.

Ms. LEVY: Yeah, I was.

LUDDEN: Can you explain what happened?

Ms. LEVY: I'll tell you something. It really felt like seeing Elvis. It really did. I mean, it was such a strange experience because I had been thinking about her all the time, obviously, since I left New York and just totally obsessed with this story.

And then one day, I was sitting in Pretoria, at the High Performance Center, which is this sort of sports quadrant of the college where she goes. I went up to her and I introduced myself, and she was very nice, and she was very self-possessed, I mean, one of the most self-possessed people I think I've ever met.

She was not freaked out, but she was also very firm. She said, I can't talk to anyone about what is in my head. And I said, that must suck because I just thought, how isolating would that be that you can't tell anyone what's in your head? And she said, no, that doesn't suck. What sucks is when I'm running and people are writing these things, which is, of course, the truth. I mean, she - when she was in Berlin, the day she won the semifinals, a reporter went up to her and blurted out: I've heard rumors that you were born a man. I mean, that's what she's dealing with.

The next day that's supposed to be a day of rest, she's taken for tests with a gynecologist, an endocrinologist, a geneticist. I mean, she's going through this battery of tests on what's supposed to be her rest day. And the next day, she absolutely kicks ass. I mean, she obliterates the competition. If you watch that race, it really gives new meaning to the phrase leaves them in the dust. I've never seen anything like it.

LUDDEN: Do you think she'll ever run again?

Ms. LEVY: Well, I think she'll absolutely run in South Africa. South Africa is behind this girl, and they've already said, we don't care what the IAAF comes up with, you can run with women here for the rest of your life. So she'll be running there forever. Whether we'll see her at the Olympics, I really couldn't say. I really don't know what the IAAF is going to come up with.

LUDDEN: Ariel Levy's article in this week's New Yorker is called "Either/Or: Sports, Sex and the Case of Caster Semenya." Levy joined us from New York. Thank you so much.

Ms. LEVY: Thanks for having me.

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