The Caster Semenya ruling and why the IAAF are on the wrong side of history

Gender, race, sexuality, science, society. They all have a part to play in the Caster Semenya ruling.


You know when you have an instinctual gut reaction to a piece of news, but struggle to put words to the impression? That’s how I have felt since the April ruling against South African Olympian Caster Semenya. Required by an IAAF rule to take testosterone-reducing medication if she wanted to compete, Semenya appealed the decision to the Swiss Supreme Court. Initially, they granted her a temporary exemption until they ruled but yesterday, the court sided with the IAAF. So far, Semenya has refused to take any kind of drugs, which means she will not be allowed to defend her 800m title at this year's World Championships in Doha.

It's hard to pinpoint exactly what is so wrong with these rulings, but that's because it isn't just one issue. It is a multitude of them and they all intersect and feed into one another. Race, gender, science, sexuality, biology, sport.

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The background

So, let’s break it down. In April, the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS), the body that oversees disputes between athletes and governing bodies, upheld the 2018 ruling of the International Association of Athletics Federation (IAAF, which oversees athletics globally).

It stipulated that Caster’s naturally high levels of testosterone would have to be medically reduced if she wanted to continue competing in female sports. Her high testosterone levels are the result of a condition called hyperandrogenism, which is characterised by high levels of androgens in females, resulting in acne, excessive body hair and an increased production of testosterone. Semenya is not trans either, as Fox News reported at the time.

Her testosterone production is naturally occurring and hyperandrogenism is a relatively common condition in women. If you suffer from polycystic ovaries, the chances are you also have symptoms of hyperandrogenism. I can’t help but wonder if it was a different hormone Caster’s body was “excessively” producing, or if she had another natural ability that aided her ability to compete and win, would the athletic governing body been as eager to constrain it?

Genetic advantages

Michael Phelps is an extraordinarily gifted swimmer. His unusually large wingspan, limber ankles and shoulder joints, as well as an undeniable drive and determination to win, have made him the force he is.

Ian Thorpe is nicknamed “Flipper” because of his size seventeen feet (he’s 6’4). Kenyan and Ethiopian runners like Kenenisa Bekele, Ezekiel Kemboi and Tirunesh Dibaba have dominated long-distance races in part because the limited oxygen in these mountainous countries increases their anaerobic capacity.

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No one has demanded that these traits be regulated and they’re certainly not considered as a leading contribution to the unbelievable achievements of these athletes. That would be an insult to their hard work, determination and sacrifice, wouldn't it?

Related: The sexist commentary at Wimbledon remains a huge problem

So why do the IAAF feel the need to regulate Caster’s? Is it because it’s testosterone, a hormone that has culturally (and incorrectly) become the de facto defining factor between the sexes? Gender expectations define so much of our lives and testosterone has been prized as one of the reigning biological differences between the sexes – it’s what gives men extra strength, the drive to go out and find food and mates and sow their seed. But a quick read of Cordelia Fine’s book Testosterone Rex (winner of the Science Book Prize in 2017) proves that this correlation is really a cultural one and the science doesn’t bear that out.

Even the IAAF admitted in their ruling that the study looking at testosterone’s links to explosive power or unusual athleticism is tenuous at best. In fact, in some cases, it was proven to be detrimental to sporting success.

The policing of women's bodies

But then, of course, women are familiar with the cultural control of our bodies. We’re accustomed to being told what our bodies should and shouldn’t do, as well as what they look like and the limits of female physical capability.

Related: Why Katie Taylor should make us rethink how we support women in sport

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Former Olympic swimmer Casey Legler spoke in The Cut about her experience growing up as a swimmer in the 1990s. At that time, it was widely accepted that it was physically impossible for a woman to swim a sub-54-second 100-metre freestyle. That is until it was broken by Dutch swimmer Inge de Bruijn in 2000. The 100-metre women’s freestyle world record now stands at 51.71 seconds.

We’re so comfortable with legislating women’s bodies and women like Caster are already at a disadvantage when it comes to quote-unquote "gender" and what it means to be a woman. The fact that Caster doesn’t have a typical “feminine” appearance and is also gay and black – intersectional factors that further disrupt our outdated vision of womanhood.

Serena Williams is constantly coming under suspicion for her “masculine” physique, being tested for substance abuse significantly more than any other female tennis player in her sphere, despite being one of the most successful athletes of all time.

This is what intersectional discrimination looks like. I don’t know what the conclusion is regarding allowing men and women to compete against one another but Caster Semenya should be allowed to compete without being forced to chemically alter her biological makeup. The science does not support the emphasis placed on testosterone and athletic ability and boiling it down to a single factor is an insult to Caster’s drive, determination and mental endurance, which has surely been stretched to breaking point with this ruling.

Featured image via Instagram


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