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This is the behind-the-scenes story of the South African #1 undisputed middle-distance runner of 2016 and Olympic gold medalist in Rio de Janeiro, Caster Semanya. It shows a totally different and fascinating slice of life in South Africa from that of the white underclass, which I broadcast recently.

It touches on a touchy subject made touchier by the polarizing politics of our day.

Semanya was raised and socialized as a girl but she has three times the normal levels of testosterone in her body than that of a typical female. She became a South African sports heroine after winning the 2009 Berlin International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) race.

Due to spikes in her run times and her arguably male appearance, she was forced to have invasive medical exams to verify her gender and although her medical results were never officially released, leaks came out about an “intersex trait”. She was banned from competing in 2010. At the time, Semanya says on-camera here, “I was born this way…Are you going to blame me or are you going to blame God?”

Later examinations overturned that ruling and she was allowed to compete again. She went on to win gold in many races, including in the 2012 London Olympics and again, in the 2016 Rio Olympics.

Some argue that her best running times are seconds off from the fastest females on record; she is not the fastest female, ever – but still, it is exactly the “freaks of nature”, such as herself and eight-time Jamaican Olympic Champion, Usain Bolt who are born to run.

The film is actually more about the gray nature of gender, an issue that has been inflaming politics, lately.

The scientist interviewed here says that gender is a spectrum and that scientifically, there is no such thing a person who is 100% male or female. The argument remains however, whether intersex athletes should be allowed to compete in women’s athletics?

Some woman athletes argue that it’s been hard enough to develop women’s sports programs to now have to contend with this. They don’t feel that it’s right that intersex and transgender athletes should be allowed to compete in women’s sports.

Where does this leave intersex and transgender athletes, who would neither be able to compete with men nor women?

Maria José Martínez-Patiño is also shown here. She was a former hurdler on the Spanish Olympic team, who was stripped of her gold medal and forced to step down in 1986, in a very humiliating and public way. She was born, raised and developed with all of the outward the appearances of a female and only discovered in her early 20s that she was an XY female with Complete Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome (CAIS).

Many “males” born with this condition develop almost “super-female” bodies, often with cinched waists, large breasts and masses of shiny head hair. Although genetically male, the testosterone receptor sites of CAIS women do not absorb the testosterone running in their blood into their tissues, making them in some ways more “female” than most XX females, who do have functioning testosterone receptors.

Virtually all CAIS women do not even know that they are XY until they fail to begin menses at puberty, to then have medical examinations revealing that their “ovaries” are actually undescended testicles. It is common for young women with low body fat, especially competitive runners to have their menses stop or to never even commence, while they remain extremely active, athletically. The female body requires a certain ratio of body fat in order to be fertile. This may be why Patiño could have easily ascribed her lack menses to her elite athletic career.

Alexandra Bruce

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  • I found this video informative. I didn’t know the details of the XY dance as well, prior. Nor did I know the variances of these chromosomes. Amazing. Thanks for posting.

  • Astonishing! Apparently these athletes are permitted to participate without examination. Try that in professional sports and see how far you get. Invasion of privacy? Pshaw! Why all the hand wringing? Obviously their rules are loosey goosey, so let her enjoy the fruits of her labors. She looks, acts and sounds like a man, but whatever her identity, they let her compete as a female, so give her what’s due her. If you are going to have gender divisions, then there must be gender identity or in rare cases there must be a declaration in advance of eligibility. What’s wrong with these people?

    • What’s wrong with who? Semanya grew up as a girl in the South African bush. I don’t think this a fraud case but one of an intersex woman who identified as female, who comes from a very humble background and who made the most of what she was given by God. The moment she won in Berlin, she came under investigation and was barred from competing. A subsequent investigation cleared her and allowed her to compete again.

      I have to think that Semanya is genetically an XX female, otherwise, she would never have been reinstated, after her 2010 ban but the details have never been released. In the film, there are baby pictures of her in a dress and she’s also shown with her social group of girlfriends.

      She recently married her running colleague, Violet, who appears in this film and who is very feminine. So she’s gay, which is not surprising. Different cultures have had various solutions for people who are not distinctly hetero- males or females. In Islamic cultures, these people are thrown off buildings. In some Native American cultures, these people became shamans.

      The issue of gender can really be a brain-twister for most of us.

      • Thank you for your thoughtful reply Alexandra, I recall her mother saying that she’d changed her nappies as a baby, she obviously appeared anatomically female to her parents and was raised accordingly.

        The fact that her voice is low, that she’s somewhat androgynous appearing as a young woman has nothing to do with anatomy, but with her genetics, and through no fault of her own. I, for one, am happy she’s been allowed to compete once again.

      • You missed my point completely! Read the words. I didn’t say what’s wrong with Semanya, I wrote what’s wrong with “them”. My entire critique was against them and their policies. It doesn’t matter what she grew up as. What matters is the “authorities” permitted Semanya to compete as a woman and she won. Case closed!

        • She is in all likelihood an XX woman, which is why she was reinstated. If she were XY, she would have gone bye-bye, like Patiño did, who was more feminine in appearance and possibly plumbing (other than lacking a uterus) than Semanya.

          Semanya’s body is not in the spectrum of normal but her run times are not faster than those of the fastest women who did not have intersex traits. Intersex is very rare – although less rare in women’s sports, obviously – and, yes, there’s a problem because these sports authorities haven’t developed a policy to deal with it because it’s very hard to be fair and humane – this is precisely what the issue of intersex brings up.

          She wasn’t doping. She wasn’t cheating. She was raised female, identifies as female and is genetically female. Has intersex traits – her voice, alone…

    • The type of gender definition spoken of here has been used in sports forever, all sports. Apparently, the narrow-minded run the world of sports. They never considered thinking outside their little gender box and didn’t figure on someone like Semanya, et al. The problem with the gender issue in sports, once the Semanyas are discovered, is the public manner in which they medically surveyed and subsequently shamed by the inflexible minds of these sports-leveling gods.

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