Time for a tangent.
On Wednesday 1st May 2019, the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) passed judgement on a case that it considered to be ‘one of the most pivotal’ it had ever heard. The case was Caster Semenya’s challenging of new rules imposed by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) that require hyperandrogenous athletes to take medication that will lower their testosterone levels. And the judgement was that those new rules will stand.
This has caught the eye of the general public and many are making sweeping, partially-informed statements about cruelty, discrimination and hypocrisy.
It is very easy to throw together a side-by-side photo of Semenya and, for example, Michael Phelps, with a quote demonstrating the apparent hypocrisy of one being punished for the testosterone her body naturally produces whilst the other is praised for his luck in having a genetic advantage. Namely, that his body produces less than half the lactic acid of his competitors; one of a number of factors that contribute to the most-decorated Olympian of all time’s unrivalled achievements.
But, whilst that hypocrisy is impossible to ignore, it is far from the whole story.
An Unenviable Position
The IAAF, and the world of athletics as a whole, has been put in the unenviable position of having to find the difference between a ‘genetic gift’ and a ‘condition’. It is an issue abundant in grey areas and dangerous precedent, where a ruling must be made in the best interests of the sport, whilst also walking the fine line of political correctness. A good example of this fine line being that the debate revolves around DSD – an acronym that at one point stood for ‘Disorders of Sexual Development’ but has now been changed to ‘Differences of Sexual Development’, with the term ‘disorder’ being considered too controversial.
The world is a wildly different place now to what it was at the turn of the 20th century, when the modern Olympic Games and the IAAF were established. Back then, lines were very easily drawn between male and female. But we now live in an age where gender is becoming less binary and many people choose to be identified as gender neutral.
Surely a line must be drawn somewhere though. Across almost all events, even the very best women would struggle to compete with the men; Semenya’s personal best over 800m of 1:54.25 is over 13 seconds slower than the male world record. Any more than one definitive line and there is the risk of athletics losing that base appeal of finding the human that is the very fastest, strongest, best at throwing a pointy stick, etc. – instead having a large series of categories and groups that could make the sport too complex to the average spectator. Or a beige sport where all athletes are forced to have the same levels of different aspects of genetics.
But where is the fairest point to draw said line?
The Science Behind The Decision
In backing up its case, the IAAF points out that, whilst most females have testosterone levels ranging from 0.12 to 1.79 nmol/L, DSD athletes – who are often born with testes and experience similar increases in muscle size, strength and haemoglobin levels as a male does after puberty – are usually in the normal adult male range, which is from 7.7 to 29.4 nmol/L. Therefore, it wants DSD athletes to reduce their testosterone to below 5 nmol/L.
Semenya’s team have argued, however, that DSD women with high testosterone may not get the same performance benefits from the hormone because their bodies do not convert the testosterone into a fully active form.
Whilst ruling in favour of the IAAF rules, CAS has set out serious concerns regarding the application of them. And there is also the fact that the proposed policy applies only from the 400m to a mile, which is strange given that testosterone has more of an effect in power events. There are apparently not enough DSD athletes in many field events for the IAAF to make its case in those disciplines. This further muddies the waters; how can you make such a momentous decision regarding biology and then not implement it across the board? In limiting the rules to a certain aspect of athletics, the IAAF are undermining their own standpoint.
No Stranger to Adversity
Semenya feels persecuted. “For a decade the IAAF has tried to slow me down, but this has actually made me stronger. The decision of CAS will not hold me back,” she said in a statement. A gay, black woman from a South African township, Semenya is no stranger to discrimination and adversity. Even her own country’s governing body has tricked her in the past.
In August 2009, at just 18 years of age, Semenya undertook a gender test before the World Championships in Berlin. She was unaware of the purpose of the test, however, with Athletics South Africa (ASA) president Leonard Chuene telling her it was a random doping test. Some of the results were then leaked to the press, despite never being officially published, and led to idle chatter and Chinese whispers regarding an intersex trait.
Semenya’s coach, Wilfred Daniels, resigned because he felt that ASA “did not advise Ms. Semenya properly”.
It doesn’t help the IAAF’s case that they have been proven wrong before. In the early 1990s, Spanish hurdler Maria Jose Martinez-Patino was banned for producing abnormal results in her chromosome test but, after refusing to quit or feign injury as she had been advised, she was able to prove that a genetic condition meant she was insensitive to testosterone that was in her blood. There is always the danger that the constant advances in scientific technology will render past results outdated, incorrect and often embarrassing.
Athletics has struggled for viability and with its public image for a long time in the face of consistent drug issues and corruption. This is particularly pertinent as Russian athlete Mariya Savinov actually beat Semenya to gold in the 2011 World Championships and the 2012 Olympics before being retrospectively banned for doping.
If one thing is certain, it is that this incredibly fragile situation must be handled with the utmost care and rectitude. In the face of decades of drug abuse within the sport, the irony of forcing innocent, gifted athletes to take drugs – in order to reduce aspects of their genetic make-up that they were naturally born with – is impossible to ignore.
Return back to Tangents
Return back to Home