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  • Writer's pictureAlix Lee

The athlete too good to be a woman

Caster Semenya is a women's sporting champion. Giancarlo Colombo / Photorun

UPDATE: Caster Semenya has lost a landmark appeal with the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) against the IAAF who will now implement a rule to restrict the blood testosterone levels of women athletes in selected track events. The IAAF claims that women athletes like Semenya, who have higher than average levels of testosterone, have an unfair advantage over competitors in certain distances, from the 400m to mile-long races.

Since her first performance on the world stage a decade ago, Semenya has been at the centre of debates about the eligibility of hyperandrogynous women to compete in women's sport. Semenya and the South African government have long argued that the IAAF's plan to restrict women's naturally-occurring testosterone levels infringes Semenya's human rights and specifically targets Semenya to restrict her eligibility to compete - and win.

Women athletes with testosterone levels exceeding the acceptable limit will either have to take medication to suppress their testosterone levels or withdraw from competing.


3 April, 2018: For elite athletes, international competitions represent the pinnacle of their sport. As some athletes have discovered, however, such meetups are not always as welcoming as they seem.

Women athletes who do not (or cannot) conform to normative standards on appearance and performance are forced to prove and re-prove both their 'femaleness' and eligibility to compete against other women. South African track star Caster Semenya and lesser known athletes like Indian sprinter Dutee Chand have found themselves at the centre of debates of what constitutes femaleness and have been stripped of their identities in the process.

Most elite athletes are beneficiaries of genetic traits which allow them to outperform their rivals.

Champion American swimmer and history’s most decorated Olympian, Michael Phelps, has an elongated wingspan and abnormally large, double jointed feet which act as veritable flippers in the water.

Usain Bolt’s long legs allow him to generate more power in his stride so he takes fewer steps than any of his competitors.

For Semenya, however, her impressive performances are always overshadowed by questions about her gender.

At the 2009 Athletics World Championships in Berlin, then 18-year-old Semenya won gold in the 800m, cruising past her competitors to win the event with an impressive margin. Throughout the championships, there were rumours that Semenya was not a woman.

Her gold-medal performance and clear superiority over the other women competitors culminated in a request by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) to undergo gender verification tests.

A news story run by the media organisation France 24 showed the contrasting treatment Semenya received around the world. In South Africa, Semenya was declared a national sporting hero and role model. South African supporters refused to accept the allegation Semenya was a man, arguing that the incident was the result of racist attitudes held by Western competitors and media.

Elsewhere around the world, Semenya was suddenly at the centre of debates on gender in which people commented on factors which demonstrated Semenya’s non-conformity to 'femaleness' and traditional constructions of femininity.

How can we punish women athletes for biologically occurring high levels of testosterone when we revere Michael Phelps, Usain Bolt and other male athletes for their genetic advantages?

Semenya’s identity as a woman is questioned because her ability as an athlete transcends expectations of her gender.

Semenya’s test results showed she had higher levels of testosterone than most women (a condition called hyperandrogenism) and she was banned from competing. Many athletes and others in the field argued that this was the reason behind her superior performance.

After more tests and appeals, Semenya was cleared by the IAAF to return to competitive racing in 2010. In 2011, the IAAF enacted rules to prevent women with hyperandrogenism from competing without taking hormone-suppressing drugs or exploring other surgical options. This rule, however, was overturned in time for the Rio Olympics.

In Rio, people around the world watched on as Semenya charged ahead in the final 200m. Semenya was a gracious winner, congratulating her competitors and waving to the crowd, but fellow competitor Lynsey Sharp was so frustrated by the overturning of the hyperandrogenism rule that she was reduced to tears in a post-race interview. (Sharp still would have been without a podium finish even in Semenya's absence.)

Sharp consoles Canadian Melissa Bishop after the 2016 Olympic final, Semenya congratulates both on their efforts. Antonio Lacerda / EPA

Implicit in such responses to Semenya winning is that she is too powerful (read: masculine) to compete against women. That she is too impressive to be a woman.

Her so-called ‘masculine’ appearance makes her competitors appear more feminine and highlights her muscular frame as an anomaly in the field. Sharp's poorly timed outburst, however, worked more to undermine her own athletic performance as well as the athletic ability of her fellow competitors.

Semenya has not yet broken the World or Olympic records for the 800m. She was clearly the most impressive athlete in the 800m Women's Final at Rio, but was still two seconds off World Record pace.

Is her appearance alone leading people like Lynsey Sharp to argue about her ineligibility to compete with women?

The same thing happened to Indian athlete Dutee Chand in the lead up to the 2014 Glasgow Commonwealth Games.

Chand's muscular appearance and surprisingly long stride prompted competitors and their coaches to call for gender verification tests after an impressive performance at the Asian Junior Athletics Championships. The results showed that Chand's naturally-occurring testosterone levels were in the 'male range' and she was subsequently banned her from competing.

María José Martínez-Patiño is a Spanish hurdler who was forced to undergo gender verification tests in 1986. After refusing to bow out of professional competition after it was discovered she had a Y chromosome (women typically have two X chromosomes whereas men typically have an X and Y chromosome), Martínez-Patiño went on to win her Olympic qualifier and her medical test results were leaked to the press.

Not only was she banned from racing, her running times were also removed from Spain's national athletic records. Of the experience, she later said:

“I lost friends, my fiancé, hope, and energy. But I knew that I was a woman, and that my genetic difference gave me no unfair physical advantage. I could hardly pretend to be a man; I have breasts and a vagina. I never cheated.”

From 1966 to 1991, the IAAF required women to undergo compulsory gender verification tests to compete in the women's competition. (The IOC only scrapped its compulsory gender verification tests in 1999.)

In the early days, this meant athletes were examined while naked and, if the results were satisfactory, given a Certificate of Femininity - which they were required to provide at each meet where they were competing.

In 1968, the process was updated to only require a cheek swab, and later a DNA test. The IOC and other international sports governing bodies still retain the right to require gender testing 'usually by a medical professional who observes unusual genitals during a doping test or by an athlete who lodges a complaint against a competitor because of an outstanding performance or masculine-looking feature'.

We now know that despite there only being two chromosomal combinations (XX or XY), gender is not simply scientifically binary.

Martínez-Patiño has Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome - which means her body is actually immune to testosterone. We also know that levels of testosterone vary widely among men (even elite athletes), so the assumption that this hormone alone gives athletes an advantage is inaccurate. (And, unsurprisingly, men are not subjected to the same standards of testing as women when it comes to hormone levels.)

The news story on Semenya by France 24 features footage of numerous well-known South African activists whose response to the 2009 incident was influenced by a history of being subjected to foreign conceptions of gender and appearance.

For South African supporters, it is the allegation that Semenya is not a woman that is perceived as racism. France 24 argued that these activists believed that Semenya was the ‘victim of a white media conspiracy’. In South Africa the concept of gender is strictly binary. Gender is determined at birth, and, once it is determined, it is never again questioned.

Historically, African cultures have been subject to scrutiny and criticism by Westerners over the appearance of what they perceive to be androgynous or gender-ambiguous people.

Western constructions of gender and the manifestation of ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ gendered identities have been used in the past to ‘stigmatise black people’ for not conforming to these constructions as in Western cultures. It is predominantly because of this history that questions of gender incite a certain sensitivity so closely connected with issues relating to race.

Because Semenya’s deep voice, muscular frame and sporting ability do not fit within the parameters of Western constructions of ‘femaleness’, her identity as a woman is questioned.

It is these distinctly Western constructions of gender, coupled with a history of being subjected to comparisons based on physical appearance that led to the South African public’s outrage over allegations that Semenya was not who they knew she was, and who she still is: a champion.

In much of the developing world, where most of these 'gender-ambiguous' athletes are from, there is little to no access to medical testing that would reveal congenital gender conditions.

These women have always identified (and been medically identified) as women.

Semenya, Chand, Martínez-Patiño and others shouldn't have to re-prove their identity through humiliating gender verification tests. If the IAAF, IOC and other governing bodies are concerned about the possibility of women athletes 'cheating the system', they should standardise the testing process for all competitors in a way that respects their dignity.

The reality is that athletic competition isn’t fair: most elite tennis players are tall; ballet dancers are impossibly thin; Kenyans tend to have a lower BMI which translates into a higher vo2 max and therefore faster running times; Michael Phelps is abnormally long, just as Usain Bolt is abnormally fast.

How can we punish women athletes for their biologically occurring high levels of testosterone when we revere Phelps, Bolt and others for the genetic advantages which allow them to outperform their rivals? (Do Phelps or Bolt have significantly higher levels of testosterone than the rest of their competitors? How can it be argued that testosterone alone impacts performance levels without this kind of testing performed on male athletes?)

What is unfair that Dutee Chand grew up below the poverty line. It was her athletic talent that allowed her to surpass any expectation of someone in her social class. Thanks to her impoverished upbringing, however, Chand was never made aware of her condition until the IAAF sent a letter to the Indian government's sports authority which questioned her gender and called for testing.

These women aren't trying to exploit the system, but the system is failing them - and dehumanising them in the process.

Despite celebrating athletes like Michael Phelps and Usain Bolt who enjoy genetic advantages in their fields, we still subject our women athletes to 'suspicion-based' gender tests because we can't reconcile their performance or appearance with prevailing constructions of femaleness.

Our athletic standards and the criteria to compete should reflect the scope of genetic reality - and we should begin to celebrate the achievements of these impressive women athletes rather than question their eligibility to compete.

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