Among all the coverage of this summer’s Olympic Games in Rio, perhaps the biggest media furore was around the athlete Caster Semenya.
Caster Semenya is a South African runner who won the women’s 800 metres. The mainstream media is divided. Many reports have speculated on whether she is “really a woman” or questioned whether it is “fair” for her to compete alongside other women.
The reason for the controversy is down to the fact that, according to a medical report leaked in 2009, Semenya was said to have internal testes and a condition called “hyperandrogenism”, whereby her body naturally creates higher levels of testosterone than most women. Not only was the leaking of a confidential medical report a shocking violation of privacy, Semenya has since been subjected to intense media scrutiny and the court of public opinion.
“Sex testing” policies have been around for decades and are aimed at policing who can legitimately compete as a woman. All of the policies have relied on a single criterion — for example, chromosomes or testosterone — to determine whether or not an athlete is a “woman”. However, the line between what is biologically female and male is not an iron wall, but more fluid.
The questions around fairness have to be addressed. Firstly, the Olympics is not and never has been “fair”. Athletes from Western countries and from affluent backgrounds will have better training facilities than athletes from poor backgrounds — particularly those from the Global South.
On the issue of “sex”, female Olympic runners can outperform most men in the world. However, their male Olympic counterparts will be faster. Take the 100 metres sprint, for example. The men’s world record in 1968 was 9.9 seconds. In 2009 this was broken and it now stands at 9.58 seconds. The fastest time for the women’s race was 10.49 seconds in 1988. This record has remained unbroken. Clearly there are differences between women and men, which does lend weight to the idea of having some separate women’s events.
In 2015 a court ruled that there was “insufficient evidence” of a performance advantage caused by a woman naturally producing higher levels of testosterone. The International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), led by Lord Coe, is seeking to overturn this ruling. If this challenge is successful, Semenya could be forced to take testosterone-suppressing drugs or be banned from competing.
IAAF medical experts have revealed that they performed surgery on four women athletes to lower their testosterone so that they could remain eligible for the games. They also performed clitoral reduction surgery. This is genital mutilation. Socialists cannot support these oppressive practices.
Some commentators have said that if Semenya is allowed to compete in women’s sports, separate events for women should be abandoned. It is worth pointing out that the person who came last in the men’s 800 metre race was still 9 seconds faster than Semenya.
Others have argued that allowing Semenya to compete will lead to male athletes deliberately competing in women’s events as they would be more likely to win. But in a society where women’s sports have inferior status, the likelihood of this being an attractive option for men is virtually nil.
Women athletes who are deemed to have “intersex” characteristics should be allowed to compete freely in women’s sporting events. We have to defend Semenya and others in her situation.
Ultimately, if we want a world where people are not divided into “winners” and “losers” we need a different society, where competitive sport as we know it withers away.