The shocking treatment of runner Caster Semenya raises questions about what is “fair” in top level sport, but it should also make us re-examine how girls and women are taught to feel about their bodies, writes Sue Caldwell.
In May the Court for Arbitration in Sports (CAS) ruled that the South African Olympic gold medallist Caster Semenya has an “unfair advantage” when running the 800 metres because of the high level of her naturally occurring testosterone. By their own account the CAS admitted that the ruling is “discriminatory”, but “necessary”. The International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) welcomed the ruling as a “reasonable and proportionate means of preserving the integrity of female athletes”.
What this “reasonable” judgement means for Semenya is that in order to continue competing at the distance she excels in she must take medication and hormonal contraceptives for six months to artificially lower her testosterone levels prior to any competition. This is an outrageous imposition, especially given that CAS recognises the dangers of chemical interventions in sport, and in all other cases regulates against it.
Many figures in sport have come out in support of Semenya. The International Working Group on Women and Sport, WomenSport International and the International Association of Physical Education for Girls and Women issued a joint statement saying. “We believe affected athletes are being penalised for their biological traits, over which they have no control, and that such penalty enforces gender inequality, because it does not apply to male athletes.”
Tennis star Martina Navratilova said that she hopes Semenya wins her appeal, although she is less supportive about allowing trans women athletes (Semenya is not trans) to compete in female events. She has backtracked on some of her earlier comments about trans women, for instance apologising to cyclist Rachel McKinnon for calling her a “cheat”. Navratilova was also reportedly angry that some of her earlier comments about banning trans women had been taken up by Republicans in South Dakota as justification for a proposed ban on trans athletes in high school sport. It is to be welcomed if Navratilova is having a bit of a rethink, but she should have known better, having faced homophobic bigotry herself.
Others have been gushing in their praise for the CAS decision. IAAF President Sebastian Coe said that without these rulings “no woman would ever win another title, or another medal, or break another record in our sport”. Apart from the ludicrously sensationalist nature of this claim, the clear and despicable implication is that Semenya is not a woman. Former Olympic swimmer Sharron Davies went further, claiming that because Semenya was born “in Africa” she was “misdiagnosed” as a girl, and would have been brought up as a boy had she been born in the West.
Sex testing in athletics has a long and undignified history. At the European Championships in 1966 female athletes were forced to parade nude before three gynaecologists because, according to Life magazine, “there had been persistent rumours about women turning in manly performances”. In the same year British pentathlete Mary Peters was among those subjected to gynaecological examinations at the Commonwealth Games, an experience she described as “the most crude and degrading” she had ever known.
Later the IAAF started chromosome testing. This resulted in Polish sprinter Ewa Klobukowska being stripped of her medals because she had “one chromosome too many” — a condition that was unlikely to have affected her performance. Chromosome testing in any case is too simplistic. People with two X chromosomes (usually associated with females) can develop hormonally or phenotypically as male, and those with an X and a Y (usually male) can similarly develop as female. In 1985 Spanish hurdler Maria Jose Martinez-Patino was ruled ineligible to participate in women’s athletics because she was found to have XY chromosomes. She successfully challenged this on the grounds that she had androgen sensitivity syndrome, which prevents her body from responding to testosterone.
Put in stirrups
Following such controversies, chromosome testing was eventually abandoned, but the IAAF reserved the option of assessing the sex of participants if they looked “suspicious”. It is under this provision that Semenya was first tested in 2009. Aged 18, she was put in stirrups, had her genitals photographed and was internally examined. She was declared female, but in the wake of her case testosterone testing was introduced. The IAAF policy on hyperandrogenism (excessive production of testosterone) from 2011 stated that in order to compete in female competitions an athlete would have to have testosterone levels “below the male range” unless she also has androgen sensitivity syndrome. A ruling in April 2018 halved the previous limit of testosterone levels for runners competing at distances between 400 metres and a mile. It is this ruling that Semenya challenged, and that the CAS upheld.
The effect of testosterone on performance is widely debated — the two to one split in the judges’ decision on Semenya should alert us to the inconclusive nature of the evidence. The decision has been criticised by many scientists. Senior visiting fellow at the Global Health Justice Partnership at Yale University Katrina Karkazis, co-author of the forthcoming Testosterone: An Unauthorized Biography, says that she fears that the decision will “foster the already circulating erroneous representations about the science of sex biology, intersex, and the relationship between testosterone and athleticism.”
It is easy to overestimate the effect of testosterone on performance. Sharron Davies breathlessly repeats the “fact” that Semenya’s testosterone gives her a “huge” 8 to 12 percent advantage over her competitors. But Semenya does not beat her competitors by anything like these margins. Even the lower end of that would mean winning the 800 metres by a margin of 9 or 10 seconds — the gap between first and last in the 2016 Olympic final was less than half that. Semenya stands fourth in the all-time list of fastest women 800 metre runners.
Coe’s and Davies’s scaremongering is aimed as much at transgender athletes as it is against athletes with what are known as differences of sex development (DSD). Trans people have been able to compete in the Olympics since 2004. There are no trans Olympic medal winners, indeed as far as is known no trans athlete has qualified for the Olympics. Cyclist Rachel McKinnon is one of two trans world champions in an Olympic sport. She loses more races than she wins. She says, “People think that this is a new topic…it’s not. Trans people have been competing for decades, few of us make it to the highest level and even fewer of us ever win. So celebrate when we get there, don’t revile.”
The focus on testosterone as an “unfair advantage” says a lot about the attitude of sport’s ruling institutions towards women. Things may have improved a little since the founder of the modern Olympics Baron Pierre de Coubertin declared, “I do not approve of the participation of women in public competitions. In the Olympic games their role should be to crown the victors.” But where women have been allowed to compete they have been subjected to repeated restraints on the grounds that women should not do what men do. When women start excelling, modern day Coubertins reach for the testosterone test.
But why focus only on testosterone as a possible source of advantage? The most successful Olympian of all time, swimmer Michael Phelps, has an unusually large “wingspan” and huge feet that effectively act like flippers owing to his double-jointed ankles. These are regarded as genetic gifts, not unfair advantages. No-one suggests that he should remove a toe to make things “fair”. Caster Semenya may be considered an outlier in terms of her physiology, but elite sport is inevitably full of outliers. The average height of a male player in the National Basketball Association is 6ft 7in. There have only ever been eight women in the women’s NBA with a height of 6ft 7in or more. They have all been phenomenally successful — is it unfair that they have the height of an average male elite basketball player?
When training for competitions runner Mo Farah sleeps under an oxygen-reducing tent which encourages his body to produce more oxygen-carrying red blood cells. Finland’s Eero Mantyranta, who won seven gold medals for Nordic skiing, had a condition that enabled his body to naturally produce 65 percent more red blood cells than the average male. A case could be made for either of these things being unfair.
The truth is that there is a wide range of factors that can affect performance — and not all are physiological or hormonal. Social factors are hugely influential, from the way that poverty affects height and strength to the disparity between facilities at public and state schools to whether you live in a country that will provide you with an oxygen-reducing tent. Of the 207 nations that competed in the 2016 Olympics, 75 have never won a medal. Only 30 have won 100 or more, and only three have won more than 1,000 — the US (2,520), Russia (1,865) and Germany (1,681). Competitive sport has never been a level playing field.
Sexist and racist
Semenya is certainly justified in claiming that the IAAF judgement is not only sexist but racist, seemingly targeted at her personally. Semenya is being punished for something that has dogged many women in sport — not conforming to what a female should look and act like. Tennis champion Serena Williams has repeatedly faced abuse accusing her of having been born a man or looking like one. In 2016 the CEO of the Indian Wells Masters said that there were a lot of “very attractive” women players who could fill Serena’s shoes. These attitudes persist at all levels of sport, and are a barrier to the mass participation of young girls especially.
Women’s football has moved on from 1972 when the first international between England and Scotland was met with constant wolf whistling from the crowd. Even so, the preponderance of women in the English World Cup team with long hair pulled back in pony tails is disturbing — even Fran Kirby, who used to wear her hair short, has succumbed. The more we get used to women “looking different” the more young girls will be encouraged to take up sport at all levels. Instead the pressure is on women to show that they can participate in sport and still be “feminine”. In response to comments that she “is built like a man” Serena Williams posted a picture of herself in a tight-fitting red dress. Why should she feel the need to do that?
Part of the answer lies in the increasing commercialisation of sport as a global brand. Advertising executives and sponsors want photogenic women to put on their posters and TV ads. It also lies in the way that young girls grow up in a society where what is expected from them is different to what is expected from boys.
Sex-based separation in sport is one of the consequences of those assumptions. There are even different rules for women’s and men’s sports. Women for example are not considered capable of playing a game of tennis over five sets. Women can compete in the heptathlon (seven events) in the Olympics but not the decathlon (ten events). The more women participate in sport the better and closer to men’s performances they get. Since one way to improve in any sport is to compete against people who are better than you, there is certainly a case for less gender separation at young ages. In endurance sports women are closing the gap on men, making the gendered separation of events nonsensical. It is interesting that Paula Radcliffe’s women’s world record for the marathon was set in a mixed event.
Once you combine sex-based separation with a highly competitive and commercialised environment the need for a rigid definition of “female” matters, to the detriment of those who don’t fit. In a saner world, women would relish the chance to race against Semenya and use the experience to improve their own times. When winning is all that matters, Semenya is looked upon with suspicion.
It is right to acknowledge the extra obstacles that girls and young women have to overcome in order to be successful at sport, and to want to preserve what has been achieved in women’s sport. Every secondary school sports teacher will be familiar with the girls who “forget” their PE kit, and the general decline in the level of female participation as girls grow older. The underfunding of women’s sport compared to men’s is a disgrace. But none of these obstacles are going to be removed by insisting on a rigid chromosomal or hormonal definition of male and female. Saying that some women “look like men” or are “too big”, and so on, will only discourage girls who already think they are going to be judged on their appearance.
Some of these issues also affect boys, but it is much more common for girls to give in and drop out of sport. Transgender people, too, face harsh derision and unsavoury attention regarding their bodies. They deserve the right to a happy and healthy active life as much as everyone else.
There are many other things that we could be campaigning for in women’s sport. We can demand that sports commentators stop calling adult women athletes “girls”. We should expect equal investment and prize money in women’s and men’s sport. If Gary Lineker can present Match of the Day at the age of 58, why do all the women have to be young and glamorous? And why are they not taken seriously? And there are bigger questions about the selling off of school playing fields, the cuts to extra-curricular sports facilities, and so on.
We need to raise our sights about what truly enjoyable and healthy physical exercise can be like, and insist that it is provided equally to all. That will mean challenging the priorities of the current education system, as well as the assumptions that we make about gender. It also means taking on the interests of sport’s corporate sponsors and questioning the “winner takes all” mentality of professional sport. To suggest that Caster Semenya or transgender women are a threat to women’s sport is to take our eye off the ball completely.
Semenya is a great ambassador for women’s sport — a proud lesbian who doesn’t care what others think of her. As she says, “They laugh at me because I am different. I laugh at them because they are the same.”