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Making sense of the Caster Semenya ruling


Athlete Caster Semenya’s recent legal case should trigger a watershed moment where sports leaders give up on the fallacy that sex and gender can be determined by a single biological marker. Instead, they should take a leadership role against injustice, according to this opinion piece written for New Zealand’s Newsroom – reproduced with permission.

The ruling against Olympic track champion Caster Semenya has shaken the world of sport and its long-held belief in the biological purity of two distinct sexes and genders. 

Newspapers and social media around the world have been deluged with ‘expert’ commentaries from scientists, lawyers and bioethicists to activists, recognising the significance of this ruling and its implications for sport.

Semenya, the South African middle distance runner and two-time Olympic champion, challenged the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) in their decision to enforce new regulations for athletes with differences of sex development (DSD), arguing they would be discriminatory to her and other female athletes with DSDs.

The Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS), sport’s highest legal authority, ruled that women with high natural testosterone levels cannot compete against other women in distances ranging from 400m to the mile, unless they take drugs to suppress the production of the hormone. 

Those in favour of the ruling, including some high profile sportswomen, argue that its purpose is to ensure a fair and level playing field for all women. Others are critical of the IAAF, condemning the ruling as ‘discriminatory’, ‘violating women’s bodies and integrity’ in ways that neither protect nor benefit women’s sport. The World Medical Association has questioned the ethical validity of the decision and urged physicians not to break codes of medical ethics by giving hormones to DSD athletes based on the IAAF rule.

Women treated differently

Throughout Semenya’s incredible career, she has been subjected to allegations that she is not a ‘real’ woman, and that her achievements are somehow unfair. Few have applauded her athletic virtuoso performances. 

However, as many commentators have pointed out, exceptional male athletes whose bodies do not comply to biological norms are celebrated rather than called out, scrutinised and punished.

Michael Phelps, for instance, has a range of extraordinary physiological characteristics including unusually long arms, flipper-like feet, and double jointed limbs. His body is said to produce less than half the lactic acid of many of his competitors. Yet, the Olympic Committee have praised how ‘lucky he is to have such an insane genetic advantage.’ 

In contrast, the IAAF have said female athletes like Semenya, who naturally produce higher levels of testosterone than are considered normal, must take synthetic drugs (medication and hormonal contraceptives) for extended periods of time to reduce their levels.

In essence, women are being required to undergo a drug intervention that is not medically necessary, and, as CAS has recognised, could potentially be harmful.

An unfair advantage?

At the root of the scientific case is the belief that elevated testosterone gives Semenya an unfair advantage. Yet, some scientists claim that there have always been plentiful misconceptions about testosterone; the question about whether naturally-produced testosterone does indeed build stronger and faster athletes is a complex and contested issue. 

Testosterone is a hormone, an androgen often called the male hormone, but is produced by both men and women and has a range of effects on the body, including muscle building. While testosterone levels vary and fluctuate, there tends to be higher levels on average in men compared with women.

However, in terms of understanding the impact of elevated testosterone levels on female athletic performance, a range of contradictory opinions can be found in the scientific community. Scientists interviewed by Gina Kolata in The New York Times claim to have clear evidence that very high testosterone levels can lead to a competitive advantage in all sports, but that middle distance races are where testosterone makes the clearest difference.

They also propose that women who have high testosterone levels are over-represented in middle distance events. Yet many other scientific experts contest these claims, arguing that the explanations of the apparent cause and effect between athletic performance and testosterone are very weak. 

While synthetic steroids clearly stimulate muscle building, the impact on athletic performance is much less clear. Bradly Anwalt, hormone specialist at University of Washington Medical Centre, points out that trying to “quantify competitive advantage in naturally occurring levels of the hormone” is “fraught with difficulty in interpretation”.

Significantly, in a letter to the British Journal of Sports Medicine, some scientists have called for the retraction of an IAAF-commissioned research study on testosterone in women, because the data is unreliable and provides a weak and inaccurate evidence base on which to make policy decisions.

Scrutinising the female figure

Sport is a key arena where women’s bodies are continually scrutinised and regulated; from how they are represented in the media - which up until recently included blatant marginalisation, trivialisation, and sexualisation by those reporting for the sport media - to so-called sex testing and gender verification.

Back in 1950, the IAAF introduced mandatory sex testing of women competing at the European championships. This early testing regime included nude parades, physical examination and, in a small number of cases, coercive measures to surgically ensure a predetermined notion of embodied womanhood.  

While science has long recognised that there is no single physiological or biological marker that allows for the simple categorisation of people as male or female, the institution of sport continues to re-inscribe and police that boundary - insisting that there is a clear division between male and female.

It is not surprising, then, that the mandatory testing of women by governing bodies such as IAAF has been widely challenged on the grounds of inhumanity and human rights.

Male athletes have never been tested - despite visible diversity in male biology. Only women’s physiology is interrogated in this way, and for some women more than others.


Caster Semenya at the London 2012 Olympics

Racism as well as sexism

Commentators in South Africa have consistently claimed that racism, as well as gender discrimination, underpins this apparent ‘witch-hunt’ to exclude and shame Semenya - their national heroine. 

The South African Sports Confederation and Olympic Committee have joined the growing international voice to publicly condemn the ruling. The opposition to the recent ruling is gaining momentum through social media, with posts that ridicule and trivialise the judgement, with calls to sign petitions to overturn the decision. 

While Semenya is not the only athlete that has faced these issues, she is the name that has constantly made the headlines. Furthermore, a key question commentators are asking is: why has the ruling only been arbitrarily applied to the running events that Semenya competes in?

Shot put and pole vault are also events where elevated testosterone levels would be seen to have an advantage. It’s easy to see why dissenting voices in South Africa are claiming both racism and sexism.

‘Outdated and indefensible’

The debate has polarised the views and voices of female athletes. Some are supporting the IAAF decision in public/populist spaces in print and social media. Most of these take the narrow position that Semenya has a genetic advantage and her success is unfair on other female athletes.

A more informed and clearly articulated commentary has come from Madeline Pape, an Australian athlete who competed against Semenya in the 800m at the 2009 world athletics championships in Berlin. Pape has been vocal in asserting that the decision by CAS is wrong, and is an ‘outdated and indefensible position.’

She recounts how, at the time, she was quick to join the ‘chorus of voices condemning Semenya’s performance as unfair.’ But reflecting back, she recognises how there was a lack of an alternative informed viewpoint, and she was influenced by the IAAF’s constant questioning of Semenya’s biological sex and right to complete. 

Pape subsequently engaged in a PhD in the United States where she encountered feminist literature on women’s sport, which led her to question the “convictions about fairness and sex difference” she held for so long as an athlete. She has since immersed herself in this issue and interviewed a range of elite track and field stakeholders internationally, including coaches, athletes and managers.

She said that she is astounded by the continued lack of information, weak leadership and the “refusal to reflect critically on what biases might be underpinning” their absolute views informing notions of women’s bodies, sex and gender. In July 2015, she testified for India’s top female sprinter Dutee Chand, in her landmark victory at CAS against an IAAF ban for hyperandrogenism.

Need for better education

We agree with Pape that the exclusion of female athletes with naturally high testosterone needs to be opposed scientifically, ethically and legally. Over the past week, this opposition is becoming increasingly visible across national medias around the world.

Some, like Athletics Canada, have said it won't implement the policy. But there are also too many voices of sportswomen supporting the IAAF’s decision. Difficult as it is for those who are so involved, they are nonetheless often incorrectly conflating this specific issue of hyperandrogenism with the different issue of transgender athletes.

Time will tell if these discriminatory ideas are upheld, but what is urgently needed is better education for all those involved in sport including athletes, coaches, journalists and particularly those in sport leadership; education that involves familiarity with the fundamentals of feminist theory and praxis.

We, along with many other feminist researchers internationally, have consistently called out the antiquated views of gender that many national and international sport leaders, mostly constituted of privileged white men, continue to perpetuate. 

As Katrina Karkazis, at Yale University and the author of Fixing Sex: Intersex, Medical Authority, and Lived Experience, persuasively argues in The Guardian, although international sports governing bodies like the IOC have for decades “sought a single biological criterion by which to exclude some women from the female category… the idea of a true sex is mistaken, and tries to make something incredibly complex seem simple and binary.”

Surely it’s time for these organisations to recognise this fallacy, and instead of using their powerful position to perpetuate the myth, take a lead in addressing the injustices and inequalities it engenders. 

The co-authors of this article are the editors of The Palgrave Handbook of Feminism and Sport, Leisure and Physical Education. Prof Louise Mansfield is professor of Sport, Health and Social Sciences, Brunel University London. Dr Jayne Caudwell is associate professor of Events and Leisure, Bournemouth University. Dr Beccy Watson is a reader in the Carnegie School of Sport, Leeds Beckett University. Dr Belinda Wheaton is associate professor in the Faculty of Health, Sport and Human Performance at the University of Waikato.

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