ASA must protect athletes like Caster Semenya

Date: September 23, 2009
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American star athlete Carl Lewis was quoted by Reuters news agency blaming ASA for Semenya’s predicament. “Here is an 18-year-old young woman, because that’s what she feels she is, let down every step along the way… the South African federation should have dealt with it and I think the federation let her down,” Lewis said. “It is your fault,” he said, referring to ASA. “She is your athlete in your country and you didn’t deal with this before.À
Is it a case of ignorance, lack or perhaps re-allocation of funds, skullduggery, or perhaps a combination of all the above that landed ASA, and subsequently Semenya, in this predicament?
This situation Semenya finds herself in (to no fault of her own) could have been preÀ“ empted and avoided. ASA as a professional body should have known that her physical appearance, deep voice, and incredible improvement in racing time could have raised questions. After all, according to all accounts, her coach, former headmaster and aunt, this has happened in both her personal and professional life since her childhood.
Nick Davies, the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) spokesperson, said in an interview with CNN, that the issue of her sex was raised after her astonishing African Junior Championships display. Thirteen months prior to this race, she had finished another race with 44 other competitors in the 36th position with a time of 2mins 11.98sec.
Her besting this time in the African Championships by 16secs was considered too great an improvement even for one so young. It raised questions of doping, along with rumours and gossip about her sex.
This prompted the enquiry, which IAAF reserves the right to do. In their policy on gender verification, the IAAF can test an athlete if another athlete or team brings forward a “challengeÀ to authorities, which is what happened. According to Davies they contacted ASA three weeks before Berlin and asked if they could verify Caster’s sex. When they couldn’t, ASA was advised to start the necessary tests.
ASA maintains that they did comprehensively test her “gender.À This is clearly not the case, because as Ross Tucker states in his article on the Science of Sport website, if the ASA had indeed conducted a comprehensive test, then their media liaison, Ethel Manyaka, would not have had this to say in an interview with Sport 24:
“President of ASA, Leonard Chuene, knows something like that will create a controversy. How are we going to do it besides asking her to show us her private parts?À
Manyaka was seemingly unaware that such a test goes far beyond finding obvious female external genitalia. The required tests involved not only a gynaecologist, but also a psychologist, internal medical specialist, geneticist and endocrinologist.
Some have suggested that the ASA’s failure to work with the IAAF regarding the tests was a deliberate action to boycott such unfair and discriminatory practices. If that was the case, then of course that was a detrimental miscalculation on their part, which affects this poor girl negatively.
The ASA should have done more to understand the situation in order to be able to protect her better beforehand, instead of going to Berlin with fingers crossed, and crying “bloody murderÀ when things went pear shaped. Despite Leonard Chuene assertion, “The responsibility of the federation is to train children and take them to the championships,À it would seem many people feel ASA has a responsibility to its athletes and to this girl.
Where does this responsibility to prepare athletes end? Is it not their responsibility to prepare especially young athletes for different situations that may arise on the road to becoming champions? Is it not their responsibility to protect athletes by being well informed and prepared?
At various points, the ASA asserted that this incident was racially motivated, perhaps to cover their tracks. If it was matter of race, then I am curious as to what may have motivated the same tests conducted on Caucasian athletes since 1966 and on Sarah Gronert, the blonde haired, freckle faced German tennis player earlier this year?
Unfortunately, other than supporting Samenya through these difficult times, there is little that can be done to take back all that is has happened. What needs to be asked, is how do we protect such athletes in the future, from this, or any other kind of harm.
Doreen Gaura is an intern with the Gender & Media Diversity Centre. This article is part of the Gender Links Opinion and Commentary Service which offers fresh news on every day news.

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