The South African government has said it is considering legal action against the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) over its handling of a gender verification test on South African runner Caster Semenya.
Speaking at a news conference in Pretoria on Friday, Sport and Recreation Minister Makhenkesi Stofile said he was "shocked and disgusted" at the treatment that Semenya has received from both the international media and the IAAF. He said lawyers were being consulted over possible human rights violations amid concerns that Semenya was tested without her consent.
The press conference came after an Australian newspaper reported that a gender test revealed that Semenya has an intersex condition. In a story published on Friday, the Daily Telegraph said that the test shows the 18-year-old has no ovaries, but rather internal male testes. Semenya came to the world's attention after winning the African Junior Championships in Mauritius in August and then the 800 meters at last month's World Championships in Berlin by an amazing 2 seconds. Her extraordinary times and masculine appearance led the IAAF to request gender verification tests.
South African athletic officials say they have not received results from the tests and the IAAF has refused to confirm the Telegraph's story. But Stofile said the results are irrelevant: "She may be a hermaphrodite, but so what? She is still a girl ... a young girl enjoying growing up." Stofile added that if Semenya is ruled ineligible for further competition by the IAAF, "it will be a third world war."
On Friday, the IAAF issued a statement confirming that it had results from the tests in hand but urging caution over the Australian reports. "We would like to emphasize that these [reports] should not be considered as official statements by the IAAF," the federation said. "We can officially confirm that gender verification test results will be examined by a group of medical experts. We do not expect to make a final decision on this case before the next meeting of the IAAF Council which takes place in Monaco on November 20-21."
Concerns over Semenya's understanding of the gender verification process first surfaced earlier this week, when Wilfred Daniels, her coach at the time of her World Championships victory, told a British paper that Semenya had undergone gender testing before leaving for Berlin with the mistaken belief that they were anti-doping investigations. But that assertion contradicts claims by Athletics South Africa president Leonard Chuene, who has insisted that no gender tests were carried out on Semenya prior to her departure for Berlin. (IAAF spokesman Nick Davies could not be reached for comment on the South African government's possible lawsuit against the federation over human rights abuses.)
In its story, The Daily Telegraph did not say which intersex condition the test has revealed Semenya has. But if the paper's report is accurate, it is possible that she has partial androgen-insensitivity syndrome (AIS), a condition in which a genetic male is partially resistant to androgens, the male sex hormones that include testosterone. In many cases of partial AIS, the testes never descend from the abdomen, the genitalia may resemble female genitalia, and the individual will display both female and male characteristics. People with AIS often have high levels of testosterone as the body produces more to try to exert its actions. Last month, a British paper reported that Semenya's testosterone levels were three times as high as normally expected in a female, which could be in keeping with an AIS diagnosis.
Athletes with AIS and similar intersex conditions are often allowed to compete in international athletics. At the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, seven genetically male athletes with AIS were allowed to compete as women. On Friday, the IAAF emphasized that Semenya's gender verification tests were a medical issue, not a doping one, and there were no insinuations that the athlete whose family in South Africa insist she is female cheated.
IAAF spokesman Davies told the Associated Press on Friday that, whatever the test reveals, Semenya would probably keep her world championship medal. "Our legal advice is that if she proves to have an advantage because of the male hormones, then it will be extremely difficult to strip the medal off her, since she has not cheated," he said. "She was naturally made that way, and she was entered in Berlin by her team and accepted by the IAAF."
The report in the Daily Telegraph and South Africa's response only serve to keep in the public sphere that which is a very private matter. Semenya, at least, seems to be displaying the same gritty fortitude that propelled her to victory in Berlin. When asked by South African magazine You about the gender issue, she reportedly said: "I see it all as a joke, it doesn't upset me. God made me the way I am and I accept myself. I am who I am and I'm proud of myself. I don't want to talk about the tests I'm not even thinking about them."