After a slow start that had her running dead last at the 200-meter mark, Caster Semenya turned on the afterburners and blew past six other runners, placing second and earning the silver medal in the 800-meter event at the summer Olympic Games in London this month.


Ms. Semenya, as you may recall, was the young woman whose gender was questioned after winning the 800-meter event at the world championships in 2009. After her win she was hustled out of the stadium before she could even finish her victory lap. She was out of competition for nearly a year while the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), international track and field’s governing body, “decided” whether she could compete as a woman. Ultimately the IAAF decided that she could compete, but the incident caused enormous embarrassment to the 18-year-old Semenya; embarrassment that could have been avoided if the IAAF had had a gender decision policy in place and made its gender determination before the event, not after.

Following her second-place finish at the Olympic Games, there have been rumors that Ms. Semenya might have deliberately held back, taking second place to avoid re-igniting a controversy had she won the gold. Really? If you had survived an embarrassment like Ms. Semenya’s and then trained hard for two years for the Olympic Games, would you be able to deliberately not go for the gold? Somehow I doubt it.

Ms. Semenya’s gender didn’t become an issue at these past Olympic Games. The Olympic Committee planned to rely on a test of testosterone levels, but said they would only test female athletes if the athlete’s performance was questioned. Neither the IAAF nor the Olympic Committee has a policy of screening all female athletes equally beforehand, in order to avoid publicly embarrassing athletes who ultimately are not allowed to compete as women.

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