Caster Semenya and the Trouble With Testosterone
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
How did the track in track and field become a battlefield for figuring out what precisely are the parameters of “natural”?
By Eugene S. Robinson
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A bad worker blames the tools. It’s an old English adage, and it cuts deeper if you happen to be the worker, or anyone else contemplating the conundrum of how so much hard work could bear so little fruit in the face of a loss.
Something more than a few have done when considering South African Olympic gold medalist and mid-distance running sensation Caster Semenya, 27. So many more than a few that after yet another crushing kill of a win at the 2009 World Championships, Semenya, who had only started competing a year earlier, had her figurative international competition card pulled. For? For the very specific reason that the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) found there to be credible cause to test her gender.
Specifically, her growth deltas from race to race showed such a significant uptick that there were suspicions in the land of the suspicious. And the suspicions are largely not baseless. In December, the International Olympic Committee, on the basis of a World Anti-Doping Agency report, banned Russia from the 2018 Winter Olympics. Not some Russian athletes — the entire country. For? Tarrying with performance enhancing drugs. Though some eventually were allowed to compete, in the field of international play paranoia reigns supreme.
But in the case of Semenya they weren’t testing an alleged consumption of performance enhancing chemicals. No, they were wanting to test her gender. A seemingly easy test, but in what easily suggests a sort of “show me yours” move, more than a little intrusive and a skosh insulting coming, as it did, on the cusp of what should have been a satisfying win.
She’s either honest and unlucky. Or a liar and doubling down.
Dr. Steve Ballinger
Concerns about gender testing were well-founded. Because while they were instituted for the 1968 Olympics on account of manly and likely steroid-fueled Eastern European athletes, the early tests were very much about showing me yours, with female athletes marching naked past a panel of doctors.
While gender testing has evolved well beyond its roots and now involves chromosomal and hormonal testing, the insult remains the same: You’re too fast for us to feel credibly comfortable with your womanhood. A state of affairs that continued for Semenya until July 2010 after the IAAF had come to the conclusion that she was a biological she.
A clearance that gave immediate way to a silver medal at the Worlds in 2011, and gold medals at both the 2012 and 2016 Olympics, as well as the 2017 Worlds. And a renewed push driven by, among other things, rancor from the rank and file, to qualify what it means to be a female athlete. Rumors persisted that Semenya is intersex — outside the gender binary. The IAAF flung itself into the kerfuffle full force with an April ruling on new eligibility regulations for “Female Classification (Athlete With Differences of Sexual Development)” for events from the 400 meters to the mile run.
The ruling, effective this November, requires all female athletes reduce their “blood testosterone level below five (5) nmol/L continuously (i.e.: whether she is in competition or out of competition) for so long as she wishes to remain eligible.” Which is where the shit hit the fan and Semenya, who the ruling was seemingly tailor-made for, had reached her limit.
“I am very upset that I have been pushed into the public spotlight again,” she said in a statement this week. “I don’t like talking about this new rule. I just want to run naturally, the way I was born. It is not fair that I am told I must change. It is not fair that people question who I am. I am Mokgadi Caster Semenya. I am a woman and I am fast.”
The Commission for Gender Equality is backing her play all the way to the Court for Arbitration of Sport, where her filing claims that the “regulations are discriminatory, irrational, unjustifiable, and in violation of the IAAF Constitution, the Olympic Charter, the laws of Monaco [where the IAAF is based], the laws of jurisdictions in which international competitions are held, and of universally recognised human rights.” Right back at you.
About the Procrustean bed created by the IAAF, longtime sports doctor and orthopedic surgeon Dr. Steve Ballinger’s take is much more nuanced. “I can see why they’re doing it,” he says from his office in Oregon. “They’re trying to keep athletes from cheating, but they’re not addressing what underscores their unspoken premise: Do higher than standard testosterone levels make her a man?”
And as far as Semenya is concerned? “She’s either honest and unlucky,” Ballinger says. “Or a liar and doubling down.”
In a post–Lance Armstrong age, smart money takes no sides, but Semenya’s position has supporters. And in 2015 the Court for Arbitration of Sport cleared Dutee Chand, an Indian sprinter, on the grounds that the IAAF hadn’t made enough of a case linking naturally occurring high androgen levels and improved athletic performance.
A spokesperson for the IAAF dug in though: “We stand ready to defend the new regulations at the Court of Arbitration should we be asked to do so.” Until then? The fates of female runners in the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo rest on a resolution that’s unlikely to be speedy.