On May 1st, two-time Olympic 800-meter champion Caster Semenya lost a landmark case against athletics governing body International Association of Athletic Federation (IAAF) concerning their 2018 eligibility regulations for Female athletes with disorders of sexual development (DSD).
The regulation means that the IAFF will be allowed to restrict testosterone levels in female athletes who have blood testosterone level higher than 5 nmol/L which is considered the “average” for women.
Athletes who fall under this category will have to undergo hormone therapy to reduce their testosterone levels if they want to qualify to compete in the female category.
Shock. Horror. Disappointment.
The Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS), the panel admitted to review Casters appeal, openly stated that the discrimination was “necessary, reasonable and proportionate” to protect “the integrity of female athletics”. The United Nations Human Rights Council has called the plans “unnecessary, harmful and humiliating” and South Africa’s sports minister called them a “human rights violation”. This case raises so many question we were bound to be faced with sooner or later, questions of sex, gender, and women in sport.
DSD AND INTERSEX
A paper published for the International Consensus Conference on Intersex describes DSDs as “congenital conditions in which development of chromosomal, gonadal, or anatomic sex is atypical”. The UK National Health service (NHS) describes it as “a group of rare conditions where the reproductive organs and genitals don’t develop as expected… resulting in a mixture of male and female sexual characteristics”. According to research there are over 50 variations of intersex, however I choose not to go into detail about what class Caster falls under as I think it was unethical to make such information public in the first place (imagine someone sending your medical records on a what’s app group chat).
According to the NHS, here are just a few variations:
Those classed as intersex may have sex chromosomes normally associated with being female (XX chromosomes) or male (XY chromosomes), but their reproductive organs and genitals may be:
- of the opposite sex
- not clearly male or female (ambiguous or atypical)
- a mixture of male and female
It can be inherited, but it often occurs randomly for no clear reason.
Based on her appeal of the IAAF regulations, Caster falls under the category which requires her to take medical action if she wishes to compete.
CHRONOLOGY OF EVENTS
Semenya qualifies for the World Championship in Berlin, where she takes a routine doping test. Her sample is used for a gender test, the results leaked and the details of her condition are made public.
Semenya is cleared to compete by the International Association of Athletics Federations.
18-year-old Indian sprinter Dutee Chand, is banned from competition after a test reveals elevated testosterone levels.
Chand challenges the IAAF test results and, two months later, is cleared to compete.
IAAF’s regulations are suspended for two years by the Court of Arbitration for Sport. (The new regulation is based on this)
Research commissioned by the IAAF concludes that female athletes with high levels of testosterone have between a 1.8% and 4.5 % advantage over women with lower levels of the hormone.
The study published in the Journal of Sports Medicine, claimed higher levels of testosterone gave female intersex athletes competing in :400m, 400m hurdles, 800m and pole vault a competitive advantage
April: the IAAF reintroduces rules requiring female athletes with ‘above average’ levels of testosterone to reduce it, for up to 6 months prior to competing in order to meet requirements.
Rules apply to women competing in track distances from 400m metres up to one mile. Sprint and hurdle distances under 200m and over 1 mile are exempt.
February: Semenya begins hearing with CAS to challenge IAAF regulations.
April: Semenya wins gold in the 5,000m at the South African Athletics Championships
May: Semenya loses case as CAS rejects her challenge.
I have been fascinated by Caster Semenyas for as long as she’s been in the spotlight. When she first burst on to the international scene, her androgynous features caught my attention, but that quickly went away when I found out she was a woman and she was brilliant! As a youngster I dabbled in athletics myself and have one school medal in my name (mummy I made it!), I could only imagine the work she must have put in to be so fast and controlled in her field.
All this fascination turned into concern when her health, her sex and her sexuality began to outshine her sporting accomplishments. Based on her appeal we now have some confirmation that she has some degree of DSD, and is classed as ‘intersex’. I’m still a little unsure as to the appropriate term as I’ve found in my research that the term “DSD” is controversial and still under scrutiny. Medical research shows that the term negatively affects those affected, I will instead use the terminology “intersex” as the World Health organisation and other medical journals I’ve come across utilise it instead.
In a statement released by CAS, the Panel did in fact find the DSD Regulations discriminatory, but majority of the Panel found that, on the basis of the evidence submitted by the parties, such “discrimination is a necessary”, to protect the integrity of female athletics.
I do sympathise.
After all isn’t the purpose of gender segregation to give all women a fair chance?! As far as I am concerned there is sufficient research to prove that testosterone does in part give men a competitive advantage and I am not here to contest biology. I am however concerned with the segregation and discrimination of women. Women of all types, shapes, sizes and biology: INTERSEX WOMEN ARE WOMEN.
Intersex traits or variations are naturally occurring characteristics that appear in up to 1.7 percent of the population. The vast majority of people born with intersex variations are healthy and do not need to undergo medical treatment unless they themselves wish to alter their bodies.
Forcing Caster to have hormone therapy to diminish dynamics of her physical makeup that coincidentally positively contribute to her athletic performance is like forcing all ridiculously tall basketball players to reduce their height to give those of average height a “fair” chance. If we will not tolerate doping to enhance, why encourage anti-doping to decrease something that is naturally occurring. Yes, she is built with an unfair advantage, but it is natural and no one has the right to interfere with her body to fit any orchestrated standards. Who determines what it means to be a woman?!
This reckless thinking only reinforces negative stereotypes and stigmas that challenge women who are intersex as not being woman enough. It further augments a false notion that women who fall under this category need “fixing”, and give them no sense of belonging. This also comes with its host of psychological issues.
Furthermore, subjecting women’s bodies to this type of scrutiny is unfair, especially as no such inspection is applied to men. The board suggested that if women who fall under this category refuse to comply they could opt to compete in the men’s division of their chosen field, this is both offensive and insulting to say the least.
I am yet to see this level of scrutiny applied to ANY male athlete. When American swimmer Michael Phelps aka the “Flying fish” gained notoriety for his first world record breaking race in 2001, he was hailed as a biological wonder. Phelps has a body that some say was built for swimming. he too has “abnormal” proportions (including a heart 20% larger than the average heart) which aid his swimming ability beyond question, medical tests even prove that he produces less than half of the lactic acid that other top athletes do.
Lactic acid, is the substance produced when the human body is exerted, it in turn causes muscle fatigue and slows muscle contraction down. Due to Phelps’ lower levels he doesn’t tire as much and can in turn function for longer. So in addition to his “abnormal” body, his biology makes him immune to the level of tiredness his competitors feel. I don’t recall any board or regulation authority requiring him to boost his lactic acid levels to even out the playing field!
I remember thinking about the language many sports casters would use whenever Phelps was competing, it was as if his competitors were automatically competing for second and third place, and he had already won.
Why isn’t the same praise being given to Caster?!
This really goes to show that we still live in a man’s world. The constant scrutiny women and their bodies are subjected to is simply unacceptable. The scrutiny people regarded as the “other”, those who don’t fall within the confines of the norm, is disgraceful. We’ve come too far to only class ourselves as black or white. We are diverse wondrous creatures who come in many forms and that is something to be celebrated, not controlled.
I do understand the need for classification, it helps us to understand better, but when those classifications prevent people affected from living full lives you are essentially infringing on their Human Rights in many ways.
An intersex woman is STILL a woman. Caster is merely celebrating the gift she’s been given by competing competitively at sports. We need more representation for women who don’t fall within the conventional ideals of male or female.
Caster is a queer black African athlete, how many dynamic women like her are out there encouraging we as humans to celebrate our differences. Women’s human rights protect all types of women however differently they were born.
I do welcome the category for both women and men who fall outside of the majority, but till that is established, till more research is done and we can truly come to a consensus that caters to the needs of human beings without interfering with biology, I do not support this verdict.
It’s unethical to require Caster to subject her body to unnecessary treatments that could have long term effects on her physical and health. We need to focus on what unifies us, our humanity, as opposed to what separates us.