Human Interest Women's Issues

All Athletes Are Equal, But Some Are More Equal Than Others

Semenya has been plagued by discriminatory scrutiny

John Scotting

Sub Editor of Naked Politics 

A philosophical question was raised on the final day of the Olympic Games in Rio, as Caster Semenya, a hyper-androgenic South African athlete, powered to victory in the women’s 800m race: How can we perpetuate sex segregation in sport when competitors’ biological makeup doesn’t conform to traditional binary categorisation? More specifically in this case, should sex segregation be replaced by an arbitrary testosterone level qualifier?

Semenya has been plagued by discriminatory scrutiny throughout her career. Her gender is called into question every time that she races, with commentators seemingly incapable of mentioning her name without including “intersex” or “controversial” in the sentence. While her natural testosterone levels are well above the female average, she was born female, raised as female, and continues to be female. Despite that, her competitors maintain that her inclusion in their event is unfair. A view that Germaine Greer incisively dismissed, when Semenya first made headlines, by writing, “doesn’t all competitive sport canonise and glamorise the exploitation of genetic advantage? Who said life was fair?”.

At around the same time, Lynsey Sharp, the British runner that has finished behind Semenya for her whole career, was sufficiently motivated to choose the subject of hyper-androgenism for her dissertation while studying law. When interviewed by the Daily Telegraph in Rio, she broke down in tears while calling for “the people at the top to sort it out”, before claiming that “if you take away the ‘obvious ones’ it’s actually really competitive”, referring to Semenya and two other competitors with the same condition. She finished the race with a “show of unity” as she hugged fellow athletes, Canadian Melissa Bishop and Joanna Jozwik of Poland, who apparently share her feelings on the subject after all three missed out on medals.

Following her early successes, Semenya was forced to take testosterone-suppressing drugs, to “level the playing field”. A judgement by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) that was celebrated by those wishing to nullify her advantage, with a casual disregard for her human rights. The result of which, in 2012, was the curious spectacle of a Russian athlete, fuelled by performance-enhancing drugs, beating an honest competitor that was being forced to take performance-diminishing drugs. That verdict has subsequently been overturned by the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) after a successful legal challenge by Indian sprinter Dutee Chand. This enabled Semenya to regain her crown, but as the IAAF is appealing for their original ruling to be reinstated, her reign might be short-lived.

So how should this issue be resolved? On what basis should a person be judged as feminine enough to qualify to compete against other women without being forced to drug themselves? Should it be chromosomes, reproductive organs, hormones, self-identity, a societal judgement of external appearance or some form of (Australian-style) points system? To answer that question, consider this: In four years’ time, Usain Bolt will be 33 years old and his 100 metre time might just have slipped by enough to give his competitors a fighting chance. If the prospect of not winning comprehensively is too much for him to bear, should he have the opportunity to extend his career by competing with his female equivalents? He could undergo gender reassignment surgery, take hormone-suppressing drugs, convince a psychologist that he wants to be female, slap on some lippy, and Bob’s your aunty!

For several years, the only immutable factor was deemed to be chromosomal makeup. SRY testing was compulsory for all female competitors, but after more than 6,000 tests, no instance of a male athlete knowingly misrepresenting his gender had been identified. Mass testing achieved nothing but the embarrassment of a small number of athletes that were found to have developmental sexual disorders, so it drew to a close. Then Caster Semenya came along and the can of worms was reopened.

The whole issue would disappear if sex segregation could be abandoned; but this form of sexism is universally accepted as “positive” discrimination, despite inadvertently reinforcing the “weaker sex” stereotype, so the appetite for such a proposal is close to zero. In which case, perhaps we could open up medal opportunities to other social groups? Working class kids are deprived of access to yachts and horses, so fall short in sailing and dressage events. White and Asian runners struggle to keep pace with black athletes that benefit from the genetic advantage of a higher ratio of fast-twitch muscle fibre. Various divisions could be justified if we are prepared to replace genuine competition with forced egalitarianism. One of the many reasons that none will happen is the sheer complexity. Race is far from binary, and neither is social class. So perhaps, as gender fluidity becomes more widely understood, sex segregation will be seen in a similar light, and we’ll see a shift towards mixed gender events.

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