Earlier this month, South African runner Caster Semenya continued to dominate the women’s middle distance events, winning the 1,500 meters by more than a second at a Diamond League meet in Doha.
It was a familiar place for Semenya. Since bursting onto the world track scene in 2009, she has won two Olympic titles and three world championships in the 800m while starring in the 1500m. She won both events at the Commonwealth Games last month.
The race in Doha was her first time on the track since the track’s world governing body last attempted to regulate testosterone levels in athletes like Semenya.
Although she has identified as female all her life, 27-year-old Semenya is also considered intersex, meaning she was born with reproductive or sexual anatomy that did not conform to traditional definitions of man. or the woman. She has a medical condition known as hyperandrogenism, characterized by high levels of male sex hormones – such as testosterone – in the female body.
Since testosterone is one of the key ingredients contributing to an athlete’s strength and speed, many believe that Semenya has an unfair advantage in his sport.
Under the new rules, which come into effect in November, the International Association of Athletics Federations wants to create a special category for athletes who exhibit what it calls differences in sexual development (or DSD). These athletes should reduce (and maintain) their natural testosterone levels to a maximum of five nanomoles per liter of blood in order to compete in women’s track events ranging from 400 to the mile.
The IAAF maintains that this decision is based on the principle of sporting fairness.
“We want athletes to be inspired to make the enormous commitment and sacrifice necessary to excel in sport, and to inspire new generations to join sport and strive for the same excellence,” said the president of the IAAF, Sebastian Coe.
But science has never fully substantiated the IAAF’s claim that so-called DSD athletes have a huge advantage in women’s races. In 2012, Indian sprinter Dutee Chand appealed a similar rule limiting testosterone levels to the Court of Arbitration for Sport. The court ruled that the settlement was discriminatory and it was suspended.
The IAAF has had time to come back and show that high levels of testosterone lead to a 10-12% male advantage. The track body’s latest research indicates that athletes like Semenya enjoy a “competitive advantage”, but still fails to demonstrate that even a 10% advantage exists. And the supposed benefit is based on data from a 2018 study that has yet to be published or reviewed.
So if the data still doesn’t seem to be there, what is it really? Are there other factors driving Semenya’s criticism?
“This is a racist and targeted test”
Some Semenya supporters believe two of the factors may be race and geography. They wonder if the IAAF would have pursued Semenya for almost a decade had she been a white Northern runner.
“All these [efforts] seem to coincide with the recent dominance of sub-Saharan African women in some track and field events, and that was not the case before,” says Katrina Karkazis, a Stanford University bioethicist involved in the Chand case and who has written extensively on intersex issues. “That’s a way it’s racialized. Who wins these events? Who has won historically?”
Bruce Kidd, a professor at the University of Toronto, is a longtime member of the Olympic movement and was also implicated in the Chand case.
“They [the IAAF] identified seven events where they believe there is a correlation [between testosterone levels and performance]. Two of them are the pole vault and the hammer throw and they haven’t brought them into this new rule, and they’re white female dominated events,” Kidd points out. “They targeted the mile, an event that is currently dominated by black women. And the mile is not even part of their study. It’s hard not to draw the conclusion that this is a targeted, racist test.”
Semenya’s success and physical appearance – she appears more muscular than many of her rivals – has drawn the attention and doubt of track officials.
“She’s a woman, but maybe not 100%,” IAAF General Secretary Pierre Weiss said in 2011, shortly before the IAAF introduced its first regulations aimed at athletes. having high levels of natural testosterone.
It is not just the governing body that is going after Semenya. Some of his competitors and other prominent members of the running community questioned whether it was fair to have to compete against Semenya and other athletes with a similar body type.
Take the women’s 800m at the Rio Olympics. Semenya won by over a second. Burundi’s Francine Niyonsaba won silver and Kenya’s Margaret Wambui bronze. Niyonsaba and Wambui have muscular bodies like Semenya’s.
“These colleagues have a very high testosterone level, similar to that of a man, which is why they look and run like they run,” said Joanna Jozwik of Poland, who has finished fifth, one place behind Canadian Melissa Bishop.
“[Bishop] improved his personal best and finished fourth. It’s sad, and I think she should be the gold medalist. I’m happy to be the first European, the second white,” added Jozwik.
She hadn’t finished.
“Walking to the stadium, I was walking behind Wambui, who is three times taller than me. How should I feel? She has a big calf, a big foot, she steps like three of my steps.”
Marathon world record holder Paula Radcliffe, who testified against Chand before CAS, added at the time that Semenya’s dominance in the 800 meters was “no longer a sport”.
“The girls on the starting line know they’re never going to get a medal in an 800m. That’s the bottom line. I get really annoyed when I see these arguments come up that it’s racist or sexist. This is none of that,” Radcliffe mentioned.
A different look
Payoshni Mitra, an Indian scientist and athletes’ rights activist who was instrumental in Chand’s appeal, says Radcliffe and Jozwik repeat a common refrain.
“There’s been this discourse for a long time where it’s been said over and over again that sex testing is necessary,” says Mitra. “So if you’ve been hearing this for a long time, that’s what you start to believe. Nobody explained that there wasn’t a lot of scientific evidence to prove it.”
Kidd says that in the absence of hard scientific evidence, officials and competitors have instead focused on Semenya’s appearance. Her thick limbs, broad shoulders, and strong jaw set her apart from the traditional beauty ideals of Western Europe and North America.
“On the men’s side, we celebrate differences. We encourage nations to send athletes regardless of appearance, size and shape, and we celebrate athletes who are at the extreme, the outliers,” he says.
“In women’s sport, the dominant discourse is that the woman should resemble the expectation of European, North American and Caucasian femininity and that she should conform to a hormonal requirement that belies the science and is not expected of men.”
The equality of chances?
Science and race aside, Kidd finds it ironic that this is framed as a matter of fairness and creating a level playing field. He says opportunities for Semenya to develop and hone his craft growing up in rural South Africa were much harder to come by than they are for many Western athletes.
“If the sports world is to look at factors strongly correlated with outstanding performance and medals, it should first look at personal and national income before anything else,” Kidd said. “Look at any medal table. It’s aligned in favor of the wealthiest countries and the wealthiest families in those countries.”
Mitra particularly takes issue with Radcliffe’s criticisms.
“The type of facilities that athletes like Paula Radcliffe enjoy is nothing like any of these other athletes, even Caster, who is the best that South Africa has,” Mitra said. “Paula had tremendous training support. She could train at higher altitudes, she had a large number of support staff who traveled with her from competition to competition.
“[Athletes from developed nations] I don’t understand that if you’re part of the advanced world, you don’t tend to understand the struggle of the other part of the world.”
In her native South Africa, a country with a long history of racial inequality, Semenya’s story resonated.
“These new regulations violate the human rights of athletes, primarily targeting those from Eastern Europe, Asia and the African continent,” read a statement from the African National Congress. “The racial nuances of this cannot go unnoticed.
“The regulations are a painful reminder of our past, where an unjust government specifically legislated laws for certain activists in society to stifle their struggle against an unjust system.”