A Battle Against Excellence: Caster Semenya's Race for Equality in Women's Athletics
To have something that makes us stand out, that sets us apart from the rest of the pack, and that gives us that slight edge above the rest, is that which we all desire to behold. Giftedness is what some may call this trait that allows certain people to excel naturally, while others struggle to achieve half as well. For South African olympic runner Caster Semenya, her gift is her greatest weakness when facing judgement on the basis of unethical athletic participation. Semenya has been highly successful on the world stage, winning 2 Olympic gold medals and 3 World Championships in the women’s 800 meter race. With the medical condition hyperandrogenism causing higher than average testosterone levels and greater muscle mass as well as oxygen uptake, Semenya obtains an alleged biological advantage which may set her forward in the race for gold. This has incited immense controversy and debate, as well as multiple initiatives which possibly could be argued as either unjust or necessary.
Prior to a July 2015 ruling by the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS), The International Association of Athletics Federation (IAAF) obtained the right to enforce the use of hormone rebalancing prescriptions on female hyperandrogenic athletes for competition eligibility. However, the rule update by CAS no longer required such boundaries to be regulated to that extent. (Eisenberg) Semenya’s performance significantly spiked upon the succession of the ruling, cleaning up the competition winning each individual 800 meter race where she was in contention, as well as breaking 3 out of 4 world records in 2016 alone. This notable success raised extensive criticism on fair play, with many arguing that athletes like Semenya should not be granted a place in competition. This appraisal of the Athlete’s unfair advantage was responded to in agreement, no longer allowing Semenya to compete in her biologically natural state. On the 30th of April 2019, the CAS and World Athletics made the decision to require athletes with Differences in Sex Development (DSD) to lower their testosterone levels either through potentially harmful medication, or through surgery. (Savulescu) The panel in charge of this ruling recognized their call for action as discriminatory, however labeled it as a “necessary, reasonable and proportionate means of achieving the legitimate objective of ensuring fair competition in female athletics in certain events and protecting the “protected class” of female athletes in those events.” (Court of Arbitration for Sport)
The basis on how sex and gender are perceived in sport, is a leading factor contributing to this ongoing hiatus on the athletic world. Currently, the IAAF separates competitive divisions of male and female athletes by gender identification. Formerly, in the 1960’s and until the 2000 Sydney Olympics, these divisions were classified through anatomical and biological testing to determine the sex of the athlete rather than their identification. Under the current classifications, Semenya is undeniably female in her identity as characterized by her legal gender, personal testimonies, as well as her environmental and cultural upbringing for the last 30 years of her life since birth, therefore fitting the exact limitations of the IAAF standards. The 2019 CAS ruling is in line with the preceding protocol and does not embody current IAAF procedures. Reverting back to the decrepit regulation faces an increased risk for politically charged allegations and critiques, and is generally flawed in frequent aspects. (Savulescu) This would characterize Semenya as a male practicing athlete with DSD. (Coleman) Scientifically, this policy is not adequately supported, as characterized by its lack of representation for different types of hyperandrogenism, as well as the analysis of how testosterone and drugs with the intent of its regulation affect the body. Studies conducted measuring the correlation between testosterone in female athletes and athletic performance are proven to be defective, distinctly due to the innumerable external variables included which are often not controlled, proving that concrete evidence suggesting that hyperandrogenism directly leads to superior athletic performance is acutely limited. With this in mind, claiming that Semenya’s condition sets her apart from her competitors more than any other biological advantage would, is barely credible. (Eisenberg) This was the conclusion made by the Court’s panel, prior to the 2019 decision ruling otherwise.
The possibility of this outdated means of separating competitors under the argument of sex making its way back into the current world, holds various issues on top of the aforementioned scientific shortcomings. As admitted even by the CAS which conducted this ruling, enforcing such strict regulations of athlete’s bodies is largely discriminatory. Under the generally accepted values of sports integrity recognized worldwide, this does not support the development of athletics moving forward. Jeopardizing one's health and intervening with biologically intended anatomical functions in order to cater to societal standards deemed as normal, is an unjust expectation to present. Not only does this have little cause to believe that enforcing this really impacts fair competition, but the real sufferers in the situation are not being addressed. People who fit the accredited definition of DSD are continuously neglected, undermined, and dismissed in society overall, and implementing decisions to intervene with the bodies of athletes with DSD only further marginalizes them, reinforcing a message against inclusivity, and does more to diminish the efforts of these athletes than it does to promote equality in competition. Creating policies against the people who are most disadvantaged and discriminated against, contradicts the inherent purpose for justice overall. (Savulescu)
The South African runner is currently fighting against World Athletics and CAS with aspirations to compete in her main event in the Tokyo 2021 olympics. Additionally, she has been training rigorously to qualify for the 5,000 meter race, one which is usually outside her realm of specialties, however a race where she is permitted to compete as stated by World Athletics protocol. (Baloyi) Semenya has proven to be an outstandingly resilient athlete in the face of adversity, and models all the characteristics the Olympic Games stand for. The odds of the following weeks working in the athlete’s favor are considerably low, however Semenya demonstrates her perseverance and fight for equality perfectly, and will not back down her fight until the gunshot on the starting blocks is fired.
Baloyi, Charles. “Semenya Must Forget about the Olympics, Former Coach Says.” SowetanLIVE, 17 June 2021, www.sowetanlive.co.za/sport/2021-06-17-semenya-must-forget-about-the-olympics-former-coach-says/. Accessed 18 June 2021.
Coleman, Doriane Lambelet. “A Victory for Female Athletes Everywhere.” Quillette, 3 May 2019, quillette.com/2019/05/03/a-victory-for-female-athletes-everywhere/.
Court of Arbitration for Sport. Tribunal Arbitral Du Sport Court of Arbitration for Sport 1 EXECUTIVE SUMMARY. , 2019.
Eisenberg, Jeff. “Why There’s No Easy Solution to the Caster Semenya Dilemma.” Finance.yahoo.com, 20 Aug. 2016, finance.yahoo.com/news/why-theres-no-easy-solution-to-the-caster-semenya-dilemma-193035815.html. Accessed 18 June 2021.
Savulescu, Julian. “Ten Ethical Flaws in the Caster Semenya Decision on Intersex in Sport.” The Conversation, 10 May 2019, theconversation.com/ten-ethical-flaws-in-the-caster-semenya-decision-on-intersex-in-sport-116448.