Caster Semenya refuses to submit to new ban

Controversy: Semenya was first subjected to sex testing in 2009.

Yesterday, new rules for female athletes kicked in to cap testosterone levels, igniting an explosive mix of issues. For many, this is discrimination. For others, it is fairness in sport.

Caster Semenya is a double Olympic gold medallist and three-times world champion. Since the age of 18, she has dominated the women’s 800-metre race.

But controversy about her sex has followed every step.

Last week, after 10 years of fighting to compete in the event she loves, Semenya lost an appeal against new rules from the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) targeting women with very high testosterone levels.

Under the rules, introduced yesterday, she and other women with differences of sexual development (DSD) will not be able to compete in distances between 400 metres and one mile unless they take hormone suppressants.

Semenya’s legal team argued that the rules are “discriminatory, irrational, unjustifiable”. In its verdict, the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) admitted that the rules are discriminatory, but also necessary to protect the integrity of female athletics.

Will Semenya consider taking the drugs?

"Hell, no,” is her emphatic answer. “I just want to run naturally, the way I was born.”

Women with DSD are born with XY chromosomes and elevated testosterone, but develop as females. Often, their testosterone levels fall between the ranges typical for women and men.

In 2017, research commissioned by the IAAF found that women with more testosterone perform 3% better than their opponents. However, multiple experts have said the study was flawed.

Nearly everyone agrees that gender segregation in sports is necessary. After all, male athletes typically outperform female athletes by 10%.

But this has exposed a flaw in the system: what happens when a person does not fit into these two, neat categories?

The question has split the sporting world.

Tennis legend Martina Navratilova condemned the CAS’s decision as “dreadfully unfair to her and wrong in principle”. In contrast, former marathon winner Paula Radcliffe said, “Women’s sport needs rules to protect it.”

Born this way

Radcliffe and others point out that sex division in sport must exist because women simply cannot compete with men due to the naturally stronger male body. What if trans women were to compete in female sports? Would this be a slippery slope?

Isn’t this missing the point? Semenya has developed as a woman — and there’s no evidence that testosterone enhances her performance. Besides, don’t all athletes at the top of their game have some genetic advantages? What about Australian swimmer Ian Thorpe’s size 17 feet? What about other ways competitors manipulate their bodies for success through diet, extreme training, or funding? Isn’t the point of elite sport that it is unequal, and that one person comes out on top?

You Decide

  1. Should Caster Semenya be allowed to compete in women’s sports?
  2. Is it wrong to ask healthy athletes to take hormone suppressing drugs?

Activities

  1. Write down the words “man” and “woman”. Under each word, write down five more words that you associate with each sex. Are any of the words the same? Are any of them based on gender stereotypes?
  2. Choose a female sporting icon from the last 100 years. Make a three-minute presentation about her life and achievements and present it to the class.

Some People Say...

“I have been subjected to unwarranted and invasive scrutiny of the most intimate and private details of my being.”

Caster Semenya

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Last Wednesday, Caster Semenya lost an appeal against IAAF rules that restrict testosterone levels in female runners. The rules only apply to women competing in middle distance events (between 400 metres and one mile). Despite dismissing Semenya’s appeal, the CAS said it has “serious concerns as to the future practical application” of the regulations.
What do we not know?
If Semenya will be able to keep competing. She has until the end of the month to appeal the decision. She could start competing in races longer than one mile, like the steeplechase or the 5,000 metres. In that case, could the IAAF extend the rules again? Semenya claims the body has “always targeted [her] specifically”.

Word Watch

Differences of sexual development
A broad name for several different conditions in which people do not develop in line with traditional definitions of male and female.
XY
Typically only men have XY chromosomes. Women generally have XX.
Flawed
The study did not look specifically at athletes with DSD, but extrapolated from data about female athletes with XX chromosomes. Some say this renders the results inaccurate.
Trans women
People who were born biologically male, but identify as and choose to live as females.
No evidence
According to investigative journalist and sports science writer David Epstein, “we don’t know a lot about exactly how [testosterone] impacts performance” in athletes with DSD.