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Caster Semenya Gender Controversy Brings Back Images Of Babe Didrikson

The Babe had to dodge gender questions in the 1932 Games when she showed up with her 'masculine' look

Aug 8, 2012; London, United Kingdom; Caster Semenya (RSA) before competing in the women's 800m heats during the London 2012 Olympic Games at Olympic Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports
Aug 8, 2012; London, United Kingdom; Caster Semenya (RSA) before competing in the women's 800m heats during the London 2012 Olympic Games at Olympic Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports

The moment nears when "controversial" Caster Semenya steps onto the London track for her historic try in the women's 800-meter final. She placed first in the semifinals on Thursday and is in prime condition for Saturday's race.

As rumors continue to swirl around Semenya, old controversy around "masculine looking" Stella Walsh at the 1932 Olympics is mentioned as the first uproar around gender. It's odd that no one mentions the other uproar at the same Olympics -- around U.S. athlete Mildred Ella "Babe" Didrikson Zaharias.

Though best remembered as the pioneering great in women's pro golf, Didrikson actually started her sports career as a phenom in track and field. In those days, the science of gender was something that only a few scientists bothered with, and discovery of DNA was a quarter century in the future. If you looked "different" in a way that conflicted with social norms, you were simply viewed as a social misfit, and painful social pressures could make you conform.

This was the case with Didrikson. Raised in Texas in a Norwegian immigrant family, she gravitated to sports as a tall, powerful kid. She was outstanding at just about anything she tried, including earning All-American status in women's basketball. But she was brilliant in track and field. At the qualifying AAU meet for the 1932 Summer Games in Los Angeles, she swept the field with five wins and one tie in her eight events.

She was what they called a "tomboy" then. She cut her hair short, like a boy's, and wore men's clothes. Her voice and mannerisms and body movements were rough and "boy like." In spite of her unsettling appearance, she was sent to the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics, where she electrified the world with golds and world records in the javelin throw and 80-meter hurdles, along with a silver in the high jump.

But afterwards, with the media nagging her as "Terrific Tomboy," "Amazing Amazon" and "Texas Toughie," the AAU finally found reason to revoke her amateur status. She had to turn to pro sports to keep going.

The rest is history -- except that the price of corporate support in pro golf meant that Didrikson had to stop "being a tomboy." She let her hair grow, got a perm, wore a girdle, skirts and makeup, and generally knocked herself out to act feminine -- even got married to wrestler George Zaharias and cultivated a housewife image.

In later years, she divorced Zaharias, and finally did a quiet coming out by appearing at tournaments with a lesbian partner, Betty Dodd. But under that veneer was that powerful body of hers that could drive a golf ball as far as Sam Snead could. And it still caused controversy. Was it really a man's body?

In my chapter about Didrikson in my sports anthology "The Lavender Locker Room," I wrote:

"When the Olympic Games finally instituted gender testing in 1968, Babe was still mentioned as one of the U.S. competitors whose physical appearance had first set off controversy in the 1930s, along with some controversial European and Soviet women who came along later. Babe never had to submit to a chromosome test, but today scientists know more about the genetics of gender than they did in her day.

"The fact that Babe evidently became pregnant several times during her years with George (and miscarried several times, according to Betty Dodd) suggests that she was a "normal" XX. If so, she would have confounded her critics by passing the test with flying colors."

Today Caster Semenya has been run through a meat-grinder of genetics testing that didn't exist in Didrikson's day, and she's cleared to compete as a woman. But her controversy will probably go on, the way it did with "The Babe." Indeed, if Caster wins, it might get noisier.

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