Athletics

Caster Semenya: a test of biology not gender

Michelle Garcia looks at the fabulous athlete Caster Semenya.Immediately after that mind-blowing 800-meter final at the 2009 World Championships, some of Semenya’s fellow competitors went for the jugular. Italy’s Elisa Cusma Piccione (sixth place) insisted she was a man. Russia’s Mariya Savinova (fifth place) urged journalists to “just look at her.” Other athletes whispered, stared, and laughed at her. Then came the IAAF.

Initially, the questions about her drastic improvement were linked to suspicions of doping. When those tests came back negative, she was subjected to rounds of gender testing, reportedly involving analysis by an endocrinologist, a psychologist, a gender expert, an internist; most humiliating was a gynecological exam that included photographing her genitals while her feet were in stirrups. Eventually she was cleared to compete on the international circuit again but not before she missed nearly a year of competition during the IAAF’s deliberation over her test results. The dirty secret here is that gender testing is common for women athletes — and yes, only women athletes.

Jason Kottke says Semenya is a hit by sexism, racism, bureaucracy. I’d say that everyone deserves a level playing field. Sport is all about rules. In 2015, the Court of Arbitration for Sport stopped the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) rule that females with ‘male levels’ of testosterone could not take part in in women’s races. Before that Semenya was impelled to take testosterone suppressants. The thinking is clear: testosterone is an indicator of performance. So what of transgender athletes? David Walsh notes: “To ensure fairness we need to define what is male and what is female. It can’t be down to a person’s preference.”

Semenya is doing the best with what nature gave her. And her best is exceptional. But the need is for her to be classified as male or female for the purpose of athletic competitions. Semenya is intersex: she possesses XY chromosomes but a body that appears female. And in her chosen sport, that might give her an advantage. An unfair one? What about having longer legs in the high jump or bigger feet in the swimming pool? Which genetic advantages are acceptable and which are not? And who gets to decide?

 

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