Is this woman too much a man? Track’s powers that be think so
Caster Semenya is a woman who is too much a man, according to new wrongheaded rules in track and field.
The South African runner moved up to gold in the women’s 800 meters after the 2012 London Games because the Russian winner was caught doping. Semenya finished first in the 800 at the 2016 Rio Games — but can’t score a three-peat at the 2020 Tokyo Games unless she’s the one who’s doping.
That, at least, is how it appears at the moment. Sound crazy? It is: The rulebook that prohibits performance-enhancing drugs seems to require performance-diminishing drugs in certain cases, all in the name of fair play.
The IAAF, governing body for track and field, released new rules recently that are scheduled to go into effect in November. The rules say women who have high levels of naturally occurring testosterone may not compete in women’s middle distance races unless they take medication to reduce those levels.
The IAAF says the new rule — really a new version of an old rule — is about fairness for the vast majority of female athletes. That sounds like a noble motive, but how do you balance athletes’ rights with human rights?
Testosterone helps build muscle, endurance and speed. It is one of the reasons that men and women compete separately in most sports. But science simply can’t say with precision how much advantage female athletes with high levels of testosterone have. And yet the IAAF would have these athletes take medication to alter what their bodies produce naturally.
The governing body says its new regulations are not “intended as any kind of judgment on, or questioning of, the sex or the gender identity of any athlete,” though it would seem that is precisely what it does, no matter what’s intended.
Semenya, meanwhile, keeps on keeping on. She won the 1,500 meters at a Diamond League meet over the weekend. Asked why she hadn’t spoken about the new regulations (except on Twitter), she said, “I don’t talk about nonsense.”
She burst onto the world scene in 2009 and, almost immediately, unseemly speculation about her powerful physique burbled up. An Australian newspaper said she had internal testes and three times the testosterone level of most women. At one point, IAAF general secretary Pierre Weiss infamously said, “She is a woman, but maybe not 100%.”
Some women are born with differences of sex development, also known as intersex, which means they “do not fit typical binary notions of male or female bodies,” according to a definition by the human rights arm of the United Nations.
Sprinter Dutee Chand of India challenged the IAAF’s original rule that called for women with elevated levels of the hormone to submit to testosterone-suppressing medication. The Court of Arbitration for Sport suspended the rule before the Rio Games because it was unable to conclude that such women have so great an advantage that they should be excluded “from competing in the female category.”
The court gave the IAAF two years to establish proof of unfair advantage or the court would abolish the rule. When the IAAF announced its new rule last month, the governing body asserted that it had collected data establishing an unfair advantage, though it said it can’t share all of the data publicly because it would breach the confidentiality of athletes. The new rule singles out races between 400 meters and a mile, leaving sprinters such as Chand out of the controversy. It also leaves out some field events where the data suggested advantage, leaving one to wonder if Semenya is the real target here.
South African attorney Steve Cornelius resigned his position on an IAAF committee and asked how the governing body can proffer such regulations “in the 21st century, when we are meant to be more tolerant and aware of fundamental human rights.”
Men have varying levels of naturally occurring testosterone, but no one checks to see if that gives some men an advantage over others. So why would authorities assert an advantage for women? The impulse has a tawdry history in the Olympic movement. It has moved, over time, from crudely asking female athletes to show their genitals to testing them for a Y chromosome — and now asking them to alter their bodies medically or compete as men.
Elite athletes are typically born with natural advantages. Many basketball players are tall; some gymnasts are small. Michael Phelps, history’s greatest Olympian, is blessed with a perfect swimmer’s body. But genetics are not destiny; elite athletes must work inexpressibly hard to make the most of their God-given gifts. Why shouldn’t it be the same for athletes such as Semenya?
Track and field authorities in South Africa say they will appeal. If they do, the Court of Arbitration for Sport should toss out the new rule, just as it did the old one, only for good this time.
Semenya is her own best spokesperson on all of this.
“God made me the way I am,” she wrote on Twitter, “and I accept myself.”