What makes a woman a woman?

Thanks to the World Athletics Championships in Berlin, I’m finding it hard to concentrate on anything. It’s not just the dazzling line-up of peak-shape bodies in spray-on Lycra, though that is, at times, breathtaking – that 100m men’s final, for instance, is poetry in neon Lycra.

As is so often true in athletics, it’s the personal stories that are really gripping, and chief among them at the 2009 Champs is that of our own Caster Semenya, who cleaned up in the 800m.

Her performance this year has been startling. I’m finding the debate about whether Semenya is a he or a she, the most interesting in sport since, well, Oscar Pistorius’ campaign to run in the able-bodied Olympics.

If there has been surgical intervention, or hormonal intervention, then obviously Semenya must be disqualified, and stripped of her medal(s). But I’m assuming what we’re looking at in Semenya is Nature’s own work. And Nature has, indeed, made Semenya in the form of a young man – her jaw and skeletal structure, her muscular development, even her voice are those of a young man.

So does that mean she isn’t a woman? And does that mean she should be disqualified?

In the same spirit, should Usain Bolt be disqualified on the basis that he has a clear genetic edge on those he’s competing against?

Most women have XX chromosomes, and most men have XY, but you do get XXY and other variations on the theme. Since sport is such a high-stakes business, in which the winner takes all, and dollar-millionaires are made in split-seconds, there are bound to be cries of foul play should Semenya be found to be chromosomally different, or should it be found that her hormonal make-up is outside of the “normal” range for women. But what do we do with people like her – create an alternative sporting category for genetically different people?

I’m curious to see where this story takes us. It has implications for gender-“different” people in all walks of life.

(Heather Parker, Health24, August 2009)

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