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The shameful case of Caster Semenya

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Looks like South African runner Caster Semenya will be able to keep the gold medal she won at the recent world championships in Berlin.

The public humiliation? That will stay with her, too, long after the gold loses its shine.

Three months after she mopped up the field in the women's 800, international sports officials are trying to tie a ribbon on a deal that will likely allow Semenya to keep the world title and prize money she won in Berlin. They're also planning a symposium to make sure the next person they suspect is a man in a female track outfit is at least treated with a bit of decency.

Semenya could also be spared the further indignity of the public release of her most private medical records. If things are handled right, the world may never know the intimate details of her gender tests.

Sadly, it's all too late for the teenager whose worst offense seems to be that she believes she's a woman while the people who look at how fast she runs can't believe she's not a man.

Because there's no deal that can undo the damage already done, no deal that can give Semenya back her self-respect.

And there may never be a way to make a deal to allow her to run again.

Just how it all got to this point is a tale that goes beyond the seemingly simple question of man versus woman. Semenya was always going to draw stares in her first appearance on the world stage simply because of how she looks, but what happened to her in Berlin was shameful beyond description.

South Africa was so desperate to end a medal drought in the world championships that the country's track chief agreed to the unusual - and unprecedented - request by the International Association of Athletics Federations to have gender tests done on Semenya. Then, just hours before she was to run, the IAAF took it upon itself to announce it was investigating whether she was really a woman.

Semenya went out and blew the competition away anyway, running so fast it looked like the other runners were mired in quicksand. She won by nearly two and a half seconds, finishing in 1:55.45, and accepting the congratulations of her fellow runners.

It should have been a triumphant moment in the life of an 18-year-old from a small South African village. It became a media circus where the biggest debate wasn't how fast she ran, but how to figure out if she was telling the truth about what she really was.

It used to be easier for Semenya, whose athletic physique and deep voice always raised suspicion. She faced the same questions before, but there was a simpler way of answering them then.

An article in the current issue of the New Yorker quotes one of her former coaches as saying that she became accustomed at having to go into the restroom with a member of the opposing team so they could look at her private parts before they would race against her back home.

It's not so easy now. The question of gender is a muddled one at best, particularly for a tiny portion of the population born with the physical characteristics of both genders or chromosome disorders. One reason mandatory gender testing for female athletes in the Olympics was dropped in 1999 was that not all women have standard female chromosomes.

The IAAF has refused to confirm or deny Australian media reports that the tests indicate Semenya has both male and female sex organs. Her family, though, has always been sure of her gender.

"What can I do when they call her a man, when she's really not a man?" her paternal grandmother, Maputhi Sekgala, told the South African daily The Times. "It is God who made her look that way."

Her grandmother isn't her only backer. Many in South Africa have come to her defense, suggesting that both ignorance and racism contributed to the public spectacle in Berlin.

Semenya, meanwhile, has begun college and is still training. But the attention has taken its toll.

"It's not so easy," she recently told the Guardian newspaper. "The university is OK but there is not many other places I can go. People want to stare at me now. They want to touch me. I'm supposed to be famous.

"I don't think I like it so much."

She may not like the future much better. Though technically still allowed to compete, that could change depending on both the results of her tests and new guidelines for dealing with "ambiguous" gender tests that the International Olympic Committee will look at in January.

Even if Semenya gets the green light, it's hard to imagine how she can run knowing every eye in every stadium will be studying her intently, trying to determine if she is really a he.

Yes, it will be nice if track officials make amends by allowing her to keep her gold medal and $60,000 first prize.

Would be even nicer if they could give her back her dignity, too.

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Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at tdahlberg(at)ap.org


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