The parents of Caster Semenya themselves deserve gold medals. They were the picture of poise and dignity in the face of this controversy that has thrown their daughter into one of the most humiliating public scandals in recent memory. They should have been enjoying their daughter's moment of triumph and instead, have been catapulted into the cruelest of spotlights. If it were my daughter, I would be inconsolable.
After Ms. Semenya won by the largest margin in 800 meter competition history, the IAAF confirmed that they were conducting gender tests on the eighteen year-old running phenomenon. These tests - with gynecologists, endocrinologists, geneticists, and psychologists - are now public knowledge, but the shame should not be on Ms. Semenya, but on the IAAF, who have mortified her before they have a conclusion. One hopes that the results of this battery of tests will not be revealed in piecemeal press releases. The girl has suffered enough and the damage - sure to get worse - is already permanent. Let's hope this poor child will not spend the rest of her life as a punchline. Every flat-chested girl? Caster. Every tomboy? Caster. Every woman with biceps? Caster. The woman at the bar with a too-low voice? Caster. It is very unfair, and it could and should have been avoided.
Whether or not the testing reveals a genetic abnormality, her reported pain at being whisked away following her victory certainly sounds like any child's reaction to being hurt or embarrassed. Who would have been prepared to come out and face the cameras under those circumstances? This must have devastated her family, who has watched her run, train, persevere, and according to some relatives, be teased for looking like a boy all her life. If she had come in last, no one would have bothered to interview the parents for any reason; nor, one assumes, would the IAAF have announced the suspicions regarding her gender at all. In separate interviews with British television, both Ms. Semenya's mother and father maintained that their daughter is, yes, female. Her mother, speaking to a BBC reporter, waved away the official challenge to her gender with simple statements - "She is a girl," and "I gave birth to that girl." Although it was a scoop of sorts, the reporter was clearly uncomfortable by the line of questioning. Sometimes the news organization needs the soundbite, and the mother's patience in delivering it (and obvious pride in her daughter) make it compelling television. But you had to squirm for the interviewer, who must have dreaded having to ask a woman to confirm the sex of her child.
As reported by the New York Times, Leonard Chuene, president of the South African athletics federation, said when interviewed, "I am offended. I feel what the parents are feeling. I feel what this child is going through." So do I. To hold a press conference on doping is one thing. To subject an eighteen year old to a public embarrassment on the intimate details of her biology are another. The fact that she comes from a remote village with dirt roads in northern South Africa are beside the point. Parents are parents, and as a mother, I would have liked sports' ruling bodies to have protected this child better.