It was on 19 August, just a few hours before South African athlete Caster Semenya won the women’s 800m final at the IAAF World Championships in Athletics, when news was leaked about a “gender verification” test. Three weeks on, the Daily Telegraph in Australia broke a story that she has an inter-gender condition, which was picked up by news agencies including AP and has consequently spread all over the world.
In response the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) has stated that the news reports are unofficial. The case will not be concluded until the next IAAF Council meeting on 20-21 November, which leaves plenty more time for lurid headlines and speculation.
The media circus is particularly harsh on Semenya because all parties agree that the athlete herself has done nothing wrong. If she is ruled ineligible for women’s athletics in future it is because of a pre-existing medical condition.
Unfortunately there have been a number of cases in the history of athletics when a man has competed in the guise of a woman or a female athlete has developed a masculine physique due to doping. It is clear that there have to be rules to determine gender as there are separate competitions for men and women. The difficulty is in determining how and when to conduct tests.
Gender testing was routine in athletics for over 30 years until it was decided in 1999 that it was demeaning for the athletes. In recent years tests have only been conducted in response to complaints. Obviously it is in the interests of all concerned that such cases should be handled confidentially.
So how did the Caster Semenya story become such a cause célèbre? It resulted from a series of events:
- First of all, Caster Semenya improved dramatically, winning the African Junior Championships in July by running the fastest 800m time in the world this year. It seems that gender tests were then conducted in response to complaints
- While she was competing at the World Championships a few weeks later, reports indicate that a fax mentioning the tests was sent to the wrong person, allowing the story to leak
- Semenya then won the 800m final by a huge margin in one of the fastest times ever
- Athletics South Africa made some serious allegations against the IAAF
- On her return to South Africa, it became evident that defending Caster Semenya had become a political cause in South Africa
- Test results (whether accurate or inaccurate) were leaked to the media
When the sporting stakes are so high - the outcome of a World Championship event is being decided (leaving aside the serious issue of the rights of the individual athlete) - it is difficult for the international governing body to avoid accusations of bias of one kind or another. Similarly, the national federation will either face criticism from the international body for challenging their authority, or be hounded by the people and government at home for failing to support their athlete if they are seen as too weak.
No doubt enquiries will follow. At this stage we can already learn the lesson that serious damage is done when confidential information goes astray. It may not be the IAAF’s fault but we have also seen that the lengthy decision-making process prolongs the angry debate and trial by media.
Let us hope that sports organisations around the world learn some of the communications lessons from this case. That way there might at least be one positive outcome from this unhappy episode.