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Writing in Friday’s New York Times on the Caster Semenya affair, Gina Kolata, the paper’s respected medical writer, paraphrased Dr Maria New, an endocrinologist at Mount Sinai School of Medicine, thus: “The Bantu, a group of indigenous South African people, often are hermaphrodites.” This was subsequently amended on the Times’ website to: “The Bantu, a group of indigenous South African people, maybe more predisposed to being hermaphrodites…” More predisposed than whom was not specified.

The initial statement and the failed attempt to improve it generated a good deal of ire in the blogosphere and twitterverse. A number of web-enabled commentators found vindication of their belief that the Times is racist and/or that journalistic standards are in terminal decline. I confess to being pretty stunned myself. I tweeted the first version with the simple comment “Good Grief!”

Perhaps I was hasty. A quick Google search turned up the following from recent medical literature: “a disproportionately high incidence of true hermaphrodites is seen among the South African black population” (Journal of Paediatric and Adolescent Gynaecology, volume 18, issue 6, 2005); “true hermaphrodites show an unusual racial distribution, the frequency being relatively higher in South African Bantu and perhaps other African blacks” (“Human Malformations and Related Anomalies”, Roger Stevenson and Judith Hall, Oxford University Press, 2006); and “true hermaphrodites are relatively common among the Bantu population” (The Five-Minute Urology Consult, a desk reference for general practitioners, Lippincott-Raven, 2000).

So Dr New does not appear to have been telling Kolata anything that would be news to the medical community, or at least to that segment of it familiar with the issues raised by Semenya case. Nor, I think, can the Times be accused of bad journalism, let alone racism, because its reporter and her editors were unfamiliar with South African sensitivities regarding the word Bantu. Just as most of them would probably fail to grasp the full satirical brilliance of the movie “District 9”, they would not know the etiquette requiring them, if they had to use the word Bantu, to refer to “the Bantu-speaking peoples of southern Africa”.

Some would contend that the subject of hermaphroditism, let alone its incidence in South Africa, had no place in fair and objective reporting on Semenya’s ordeal. To raise it, one might say, was to make an unwarranted assumption and compound the athlete’s cruel, even racist, transmogrification into a latter day Sarah Baartman to be poked and prodded like an attraction in some carnival freak show. That’s not my view. Baartman was a prisoner of prurience, pseudoscience and the 19th century. Semenya can control her destiny. She has every right to expect an empathetic understanding of the real and very complicated science underlying her predicament and, with the help of that understanding, to be cherished as a human being, not as a character in someone else’s morality play.

I agree that she has been let down, most assuredly by those who leaked to the media that the International Amateur Athletic Federation had decided to verify her sex following her triumph at the African Junior Championships in Mauritius in July. The IAAF may also be culpable for confirming the leaks. However, I am much less certain that race is a factor in the way she has been treated. Instead, I fear that heated assertions to the contrary say rather more about unfinished business in South Africa than they do about the case at hand, to the country’s detriment.

Mark Alegri is on the African Studies faculty at Michigan State University and author of Laduma! Soccer, Politics and Society in South Africa. Posted on H-Net, a global scholars’ forum, his take on the affair is useful. He writes:

“Elite athletes, regardless of gender, with the best training facilities and coaches, as well as loads of competitive experience, do not often get beaten so badly by an unknown teenager. It does not mean that such marvelous athletic feats are impossible, but rather that they are bound to raise eyebrows. This is especially the case given the sorry history of doping in sports: East German and Chinese swimmers, Bulgarian weightlifters, North American track stars and baseball players, Tour de France cyclists, the list goes on and on.”

To compete at the highest level and seek the rewards that come from being the world’s best is to sign away privacy. That’s one fact of life. Another is that to be exceptional in a world of cheats is to be automatically suspect, wherever you hail from, whatever you look like, however honest you are. That is the real tragedy here. Semenya passed the doping tests but for now is still too fast, too soon, too out of the blue, to restore eyebrows to their resting position in world that has been given every reason to be skeptical about athletic outliers. Not everyone believes that Usain Bolt runs unaided. That has nothing to doing with his being black, everything to do with his extraordinary performance.

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