Caster Semenya and the Controversy of Hermaphrodites in Sports

There are many unfortunate events surrounding the recent gender controversy of South African runner Mokgadi Caster Semenya. Born in the country’s northern Limpopo province, Semenya’s raised her as a girl with her three sisters and one brother.


Her parents raised her as a female because they had no inclination otherwise: she has female genitalia on the outside. She was different from other girls though.

While as a youngster, Semenya apparently was kicked off her girls soccer team for playing too rough, preferred to dress in boys clothes, and had a deep voice.

She forged an interest in running and began to compete, and competed almost too well, winning the gold medal in the 800 meter event at the Commonwealth Youth Games in 2008. Following her victories, she won the 800 and 1500 meter races at the 2009 African Junior Championships, improving her times so significantly that officials began to question whether she was taking performance enhancing drugs.

At the World Championships in Athletics held in Berlin in August, she performed even more outstanding than before… except more people began to question the legitimacy of her victories by questioning her gender. One Australian sports official said it looked like “There’s something dangling between her legs, that’s obvious, and she’s got an Adam’s apple.” Shortly after the victory, word leaked that the International Association of Athletic Federations asked her to take a gender test, breaking serious rules concerning confidentiality.


The leak confirmed that Semenya was not a woman… and she was not a man. She was both! She had no womb or ovaries, but had internal testes, which caused the extra testosterone production and explaining her ability to kick every other woman’s ass at running.

In addition to the IAAF being hit with charges of not only insensitivity but also racism, leaders in South African athletics are also taking flack for not properly protecting Semenya’s medical records and for not guarding her from the controversy.

santiSemenya is not the first case in which hermaphrodism has stirred controversy.

Indian runner Santhi Soundarajan had to give back her silver medal from the 2006 Asian Games after a gender verification test revealed she actually had an intersexed condition.

stanStanislawa Walasiewicz won a gold medal in the 1932 and a silver in the 1936 Olympics as a woman, and it was discovered after she died following an autopsy that she shockingly not only possessed male genitalia, but also had XX and XY chromosomes, making her something of a hermaphrodite as well.

ewaEwa Klobukowska, who won two medals at the 1964 Olympics, was another Pole and the first Olympic athlete to fail a gender test in 1967. Even though she had birthed a child, she apparently possessed a third chromosome and was banned for life.

Not even considering the implications for transgendered people, the recent controversy with Semenya raises old questions about those with ambiguous genders who want to compete in sports. Who gets to decide gender, the individual, or people in charge of sports?

It will be interesting moving forward how to balance keeping a competitive balance while respecting the rights of those like Semenya who want to compete as females in various sports.

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