Caster Semenya and Gender in Athletics

Zoe Smith - Writer

The Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) had rejected Caster Semenya’s challenge against the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) ruling, which allowed it to restrict the testosterone levels in female runners. Semenya is an Olympic 800m champion, and her athletic career has been plagued by sex and gender based controversy since 2009. Yet following the ruling, the South African athlete would be among those affected by the new rules who will have to take hormone-lowering medication if they wish to compete in future races.

Semenya has hyperandrogenism, where the body naturally produces an excess of the testosterone hormone. Subsequently, she is defined by the IAAF as having a difference of sexual development (DSD). This is just one example of the natural and common variation in sex characteristics, such as hormone levels, that exist both within and among men and women. It is notably different from the use of steroids or other methods of doping in sports, as synthetic and natural testosterone operate in different ways. Synthetic testosterone, when taken with caution and intention, can enable substantial strength and speed gains. Natural testosterone may aid performance but not in a necessarily predictable way as, in the same person, it can vary over time according to various factors. Despite how natural and common hormonal variation may be, the demonization of Semenya’s DSD has heightened over the years and this is likely due to the ideological playing field upon which debates around sex and gender in athletics and beyond are unfolding.

The first indicator that suggests this is a heavily ideological debate is the absence of scientific grounding put forward in the alarmist arguments that support the IAAF ruling. Even newspapers such as the New York Times have referred to testosterone as a ‘male hormone’ in their reports on Semenya, drawing a fictitious binary between male and female sex characteristics. In reality, both oestrogen and testosterone are present in male and female bodies. The labelling of testosterone as the ‘male hormone’ is arguably a veiled attempt to continue the argument that biological gender has two final and definitive labels, male and female. This presentation of a biological gender binary has been prominent in transphobic arguments, but the hypocrisy of such a stance becomes increasingly apparent as the Semenya case unfolds. Semenya identifies as female which correlates with the gender she was assigned at birth. How then can it be argued that this woman has been born ‘wrong’ and that her biological hormone production must be altered to better suit a binary in which she has already positioned herself? The goal posts of what is biologically female has been moved from chromosomes to hormone levels as Semenya’s talent, especially as a black, gay woman, evokes colonially established white fears and threatens the existing hegemony.

Watching an interview with Lynsey Sharpe following her race in the 2016 Rio Olympics highlights this discomfort displayed towards Semenya. In tears, Sharpe suggests that the presence of Semenya is an unfair setback to other athletes such as herself. However, it is worth noting two things. Firstly, prior to this race in 2010 Semenya had undergone hormone treatment to keep within guidelines in order to compete. Secondly, Sharpe came 6th in this particular race in which Semenya came first. Even if Semenya hadn’t been allowed to race, Sharpe wouldn’t have placed. Semenya is used as a scapegoat by Sharpe and other athletes. The discomfort of these athletes and international institutions towards her excellence but also her existence has resulted in the creation of ranges in which Semenya must fit by conforming and altering her authentic self.

Regarding high testosterone levels, this specific target of scrutiny is a result of ongoing debates on sex and gender differences playing out within society at large. This intense focus on the genetic mutations in sex differences effectively omits the hundreds of other genetic mutations that enable advantage in sports. Exceptional height, reach, recovery and the ability to draw oxygen into the blood stream all significantly alter the ability of individual athletic performance. A current and apt example of huge genetic advantages outside of sex differences would be Michael Phelps, whose lungs and body have given him an innate advantage throughout his athletic career in swimming. His muscles produce significantly less lactic acid and his nasal cavities process more oxygen at a better rate than the average human. He has double jointed ankles, allowing for increased flexibility when effective kicking, and his wingspan is 6’7”. These characteristics have been celebrated as rare and fascinating advantages by Olympic committees and commentators alike. ‘The Sports Gene’, a book by David Epstein, features other examples of the genetics of athletic excellence in which bodies are optimised for specific training and performance. Elite athletes are a result of training but also genetic advantages. 7 foot NBA players have been dealt a significant benefit in basketball, for which shorter players are not compensated for. Restrictions are not placed on height, aerobic capacity, metabolism or other physical variations between athletes. Testosterone is policed due to the political implications this kind of variations harbours. While Caster isn’t transgender, this is transphobia in action as the IAAF policy targets women who do not adhere to specific cisgender norms.

External from genetic advantages are the economic advantages transferred to athletes as a result of their positioning in the world. Athletes train under different economic conditions that dictate the resources available to them, and this in turn facilitates or deters athletic success. There are huge international differences in personal and national income. These may impact the ability of a competition country to purchase training facilitates and provide nutrition, coaching and medical assistance. No effort is made to balance this out. Semenya is from South Africa, a country situated in the Global South with a colonial past that continues to dictate economic outcomes into the present day.

It should also be noted that having naturally high testosterone levels doesn’t result in women becoming omnipotent and unbeatable competitors. Take the example of Dutee Chand, an Indian professional sprinter with hyperandrogenism who, in 2014, was found to have testosterone levels above the 2011 regulations. Chand fought these regulations and overturned them, but since her return to competition she has not dominated international events. In the Rio Olympics of 2016, Chand didn’t move beyond the heats. Testosterone is one of many complex and variable factors that dictate athletic performance. Semenya has broken world records, but she doesn’t run as fast as men do in similar events. Her races are within the women’s speed ranges, and her talent just so happens to place her at the top of these.

Aside from the broader debate on sex and athletics that this ruling has provoked, the impact this controversy has had on Semenya must be acknowledged. The UN referred to this ruling as ‘humiliating and harmful’, and has questioned whether the actions and intentions of the IAAF violates human rights. It is not hard to see why. Since the initial ruling, the Swiss Federal Supreme Court (SFT) has instructed the IAAF to suspend this intended restriction on female runners, temporarily hampering the IAAF rules. This was undoubtedly a win for Semenya, and since this suspension of the ruling Caster has been named as part of South Africa’s preliminary squad for the World Championships which will be held in Qatar later this year. However, as stated this win is a temporary one. Time will tell to what extent this victory will amount to changes in attitudes within the athletic community, sport regulation bodies and broader society. The IAAF has already suggested that it will seek to reverse the SFT But what time cannot do is reverse the humiliation and scrutiny that Semenya was subjected to during this period of IAAF restriction. The least the global stage can offer Caster Semenya is the opportunity to do what she does best, uninhibited, and that is run.

Photo Credit - Nicolas Hoizey -


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