It’s possible that Caster Semanya, the champion South African runner, is neither male nor female. It’s possible that she has biological features of both. This would come as no surprise to anyone who studies genetics or gender. Nature is full of such examples of creativity. A person can have two different sets of genes that express themselves in different body parts. One can have male genitalia that look female, or vice versa. When it comes to gender, as much as we like to cling the notion of either/or, the truth is, it’s a continuum, both culturally and–signficantly, in this case–biologically.
But Caster Semanya is not just a person. She’s an athlete. And sports are rules-based. Winners are determined by fixed, mathematical means. There is no continuum. And this is what makes sports so appealing in the first place. A sporting event is a contest stripped bare of the contextual messiness that makes life bewilderingly indeterminate. Whereas in life we have a vague and contested matrix of successes and failures, in sports there are only winners and losers. Simple. Indisputable. Neat.
Moreover, there are two main categories of competitors–male and female. So when an athlete comes along who won’t fit neatly into either category, it’s no surprise that it sends everyone into fits of disbelief and outrage. Caster Semanya is a reminder of the inherent artificiality of the rules at the heart of sports.
I feel for her, and I regret the scrutiny under which her most private biological characteristics are being placed. But I think it’s a fundamental feature of sports that this was always going to happen. And perhaps it’s an opportunity for the rest of us to realize that sports, like most human endeavors, are imperfect and incomplete.
Also, there’s one more day to enter to win a signed copy of Cycler. Just answer the following question:
If you discovered your significant other spent 4 days a month as a member of the opposite sex, how would you react?