Fashion Calgary owner apologizes for questioning gender and 'fair game' of Olympic athletes

Fashion Calgary owner Rafal Wegiel has apologized after posting messages from his company's Twitter account questioning the gender of two runners at the Olympic Games.

Deleted tweets about 800-metre runners spark widespread backlash against photographer's marketing business

Rafal Wegiel apologized after posting this message on his company's Twitter account about Olympic athletes Margaret Wambui and Caster Semenya. (Screenshot/@rafalwegiel/Twitter)

Fashion Calgary owner Rafal Wegiel has apologized after posting messages from his company's Twitter account questioning the gender of two runners at the Olympic Games.

During the women's 800-metre race on Thursday, Wegiel tweeted "am I still watching the women's semi final" along with photos of competitors Margaret Wambui and Caster Semenya.

The message came from the Fashion Calgary corporate Twitter account, which has about 12,500 followers.

It was retweeted from Wegiel's personal account before being deleted in the wake of an immediate backlash.

It was initially unclear who was behind the message and, in a subsequent tweet apologizing to "everyone who was offended," the media company said it would "make responsible" the person who posted it.

Wegiel told CBC News on Friday he posted the message, himself.

"It was me who actually tweeted that," Wegiel said.

He said it was a deliberate choice to use the corporate account because it has a larger following than his personal Twitter account, and he was hoping to spur a discussion.

"The personal account we keep mostly for ourselves, for our personal stuff," he said. "Fashion Calgary, I found, is more public, so we can raise certain questions, reach more people."

"I didn't know it was going to turn that way and I didn't know people were going to take this whole thing in such an offensive way," he added.

High-testosterone policy overturned

Semenya, who is set to run in the 800-metre Olympic final on Saturday, is believed to have hyperandrogenism, a condition that can cause women to produce unusually high levels of testosterone.

The International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) used to require hyperandrogenic women to undergo invasive and sometimes risky medical procedures — including taking hormone-suppressing drugs and, in some cases, surgeries — to lower their testosterone levels or be banned from competing.

But, after a legal challenge by Indian sprinter Dutee Chand, the Court of Arbitration for Sport suspended those rules last year.

For his part, Wegiel said he's not opposed to Semenya competing at the Olympics, he just thought the issue was worthy of discussion.

In addition to the barrage of online criticism, he said he's also received some death threats.

Still, many Calgarians took issue with the way he handled the situation, particularly one tweet in reply to a critic (which was also later deleted) that described Semenya and Wambui as "offensive" to the "fair game" of female sport.

This tweet was posted from the Fashion Calgary Twitter account and later deleted. (Screenshot/Twitter)

Others reported being blocked by the Fashion Calgary Twitter account when they tried to reply.

Many also described the eventual apology as mealy-mouthed.

Marni Panas, an advocate for transgender rights and understanding, said she was watching the women's 800-metre semi-final on Thursday night and following the brewing controversy on Twitter and found both to be "very difficult."

"There's a clear trans/misogynist tone behind it," she said.

"Listening to the coverage last night of the race and hearing the various sports announcers who kept talking about this person's testosterone levels — and almost providing excuses for the rest of the runners — was already annoying and then to see a tweet like this was just horrific."

Panas said there is a double standard when it comes to the "exceptional bodies" of some athletes versus those of other athletes in high-level sport.

"We have Usain Bolt, who's a foot taller than Andre De Grasse. Do we say it's unfair that he runs, because his legs are longer?" she said.

"Some women are a foot taller than other women. Is that unfair in high jump? We don't have that conversation. Why should this be a conversation? She's clearly a woman."

with files from Colleen Underwood


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