Semenya, Girl or Boy?

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Editor’s note: This commentary published by KCRW includes arguments to exclude transgender athletes from participating in competition in accordance with their gender identity. As a matter of general practice and in the name of transparency, KCRW does not alter or remove past content, regardless of how public discourse has evolved around the subject matter. After backlash to these views in later years and in the lead up to the release of a 2023 Netflix biopic Nyad, commentator Diana Nyad publicly stated support for transgender athletes

This is Diana Nyad for KCRW, and this is The Score.

Usain Bolt may be the most electric athlete on the planet today. His two new world records at the just-finished World Track Championships in Berlin blow the mind. The 100 meters in 9.58 seconds, the 200 meters in 19.19 seconds….even his closest rivals admit they struggle to fathom the talent of this 6'5" Jamaican who makes sprinting like the wind look like a jog in the breeze. Bolt just may be even more an athletic genius than Tiger or Roger or Kobe. It's hard to compare when one athlete competes for a blink of an eye while others play over the course of four days on the fairways or two weeks at a tennis Grand Slam. But the glaring difference between Bolt and the few others who breathe the rarified air of once-in-a-generation talent is that we don't get to see Bolt much. These brilliant sprint performances in Berlin were the first time most of us saw Bolt since a full year ago in Beijing. And now, unless you are going to go to extraordinary measures to web search European track meets….and I doubt you'll be making that effort, given the American television ratings of the World Championships, about the same numbers of viewers as those tuning into the Little League World Series…the next time you'll watch Bolt flash down the straightaway will be two summers from now, the World Championships of 2011. What if we were witness to Tiger's golf prowess only once every two or so years?

Bolt is thinking of adding the long jump to his repertoire, just so that he has another event in which to strut his stuff. But the truth is, unless Usain Bolt considers trying the NFL, as other pure Track and Field sprinters have done, he will spend his entire career something of a tragic, phantom figure.

Oddly, the second runner who attracted worldwide attention in Berlin was South African 800 meter champion Caster Semenya, a woman suspected of in fact being a man. To those outside the sports world, gender identification would seem a clear demarcation. To sports insiders, it's not such a black-and-white line. Semenya's tests have revealed elevated levels of the male hormone testosterone, levels three times normal for a female system. But this athlete is not accused of taking steroids, nor testosterone, to produce those levels. She is suspected of naturally having enough of the secondary male-sex characteristics, such as high testosterone, that render it unfair for her to compete against women.

On a non-athletic, personal level, this is not the first time in Semenya's life that her gender has been in question. Semenya herself says people have been pointing her toward the men's rest room for years. But once she set the world standard for the 800 meters this summer, at a meet in Mauritius, her extremely deep voice and highly masculine physique were thrust into scrutiny on an athletic level. Now back in South Africa, she is undergoing extensive tests by geneticists, endocrinologists, and a full team of various medical experts. There are several states of what is referred to as “intersex" and it will be fascinating, athletically, if Semenya is found to fall within the parameters of male and female.

By the way, it does raise the eyebrow to learn that the head coach of the South African track team is none other that Dr. Ekhart Arbeit, the former East German coach embroiled in the 1970's doping machine, the systematic juicing of women athletes. One of Arbeit's athletes, Heidi Krieger, claims Arbeit jacked up her steroid regime so high that she was eventually forced to undergo sex change surgery and now lives as a man called Andreas Krieger.

Dr. Arbeit claims he abandoned his involvement in performance drugs with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 but it is hard not to make the connection between his history and the current Semenya case.

This is Diana Nyad for KCRW, and that's The Score.

Banner image: Caster Semenya of South Africa celebrates winning the gold medal in the women's 800 Metres Final during day five of the 12th IAAF World Athletics Championships at the Olympic Stadium on August 19 in Berlin, Germany. Photo: Andy Lyons/Getty Images



Diana Nyad