If our treatment of Caster Semenya is ‘fair’ then the word has lost its meaning

Many argue the South African should not be entitled to compete as a woman

Caster Semenya
Image: Jon Connell

On Sunday, the South African athlete Caster Semenya will almost certainly win the women’s 800m event in Rio, and is tipped to break the world record.

And while you’ll hear plenty about her ‘unfair advantage’ — she has unusually high testosterone levels — it’s difficult to imagine an athlete who has had to fight harder or overcome more than Semenya has.

Since she won the World Championships in 2009, at 18, Semenya has been hounded on the question of her gender by media outlets around the world; she has had intimate information about her body leaked and published; she’s been subjected to highly invasive ‘gender verification’ tests — as though her hormones were illegal drugs — and for a time she underwent chemical treament to suppress her testosterone levels in order to be allowed to compete.

This concern over Semenya’s physiology is strange, as feminist commentators have pointed out, because almost all great athletes are great because of physical abnormalities.

Michael Phelps has unusually long arms and large feet; Usain Bolt has an extraordinarily high density of fast-twitch muscle fibres; Paula Radcliffe’s VO2 max (the maximum volume of oxygen an athlete can use) was higher than almost any other female athlete’s.

No one has managed to explain why elevated testosterone levels in women should be treated differently to any other innate physical advantage.

Indeed, it seems that sporting grandees simply have a fixed, normative idea of what a woman should be, and Semenya’s speed and power threatens those norms.

However, she can take part in Rio, without hormone suppression, thanks to another hyperandrogenic athlete, Dutee Chand, who won a case against the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), arguing that the upper testosterone limit was discriminatory.

But yet again, Semenya is the focus of a sordid media storm, in which commentators try to explain that their problem with her is nothing to do with gender, justice or human rights. It’s simply about fairness.

Take Malcolm Gladwell, author and widely respected intellectual, who, in an interview with the New Yorker, was asked if Semenya should be allowed to compete as a woman. He responded with the following:

“Of course not! And why do I say of course not? Because not a single track-and-field fan that I’m aware of disagrees with me. I cannot tell you how many arguments I’ve gotten into over the past two weeks about this, and I’ve been astonished at how many people fail to appreciate the athletic significance of this. Remember, this is a competitive issue, not a human-rights issue. No one is saying that Semenya isn’t a woman, a human being, and an individual deserving of our full respect.”

The distinction Gladwell draws between ‘a human rights issue’ and ‘a competitive issue’ is quite remarkable. Imagine we applied it to a professional sector other than sport — say, a sweat shop owner claiming his abuse of workers was not a human rights issue but an efficiency issue.

The point of human rights is their universality, and the fact that they cannot, or at least should not, be superseded by any other concern.

When the IAAF inscribes and reinscribes its gender policing regulations — while fully aware of the trauma and prejudice it will force athletes to endure — the message it sends to the world is that so-called fair competition is more important than the rights and wellbeing of athletes.

Sport, and particularly the Olympics, is about celebrating and respecting achievement, and bringing people together in solidarity.

If sporting authorities believe that an abstract idea of competition is more important than the rights and dignity of the athletes, then sport has lost its way and lost its purpose.

If Semenya wins on Sunday, she will once again face the gender police, both in the world media and in her own sport.

Her success will be used not as an example of what athletes can achieve in the face of adversity, but as an argument for tightening the definition of what it is to be a woman, as a justification for subjecting other athletes to the kind of humiliating treatment she has suffered.

If that’s what we call fair, then I’m done with fairness.

Niamh Ní Mhaoileoin is editor of Left Foot Forward. Follow her on Twitter @NiamhSquared

10 Responses to “If our treatment of Caster Semenya is ‘fair’ then the word has lost its meaning”

  1. Colin Davy

    She’s female. She may well have XY chromosomes (if she suffers from AIS, which she may do), but she was brought up as a female.

    However your arguments are missing the point. Tall people have an advantage in basketball, but we don’t separate tall people from short people and have two separate competitions.

    Male athletes have a 10 – 12% advantage because of their different testosterone levels, so we divide the sexes into two separate competitions. If you believe that testosterone levels should not be a barrier, why not have open competition as we do in basketball?

    No women would ever win, but that’s the logical conclusion.

  2. Imran Khan

    There are children in the UK who go to bed hungry.

  3. Colin Davy

    If you are unsure of the science, how about these words from Paula Radcliffe …

    “That is why Lynsey Sharp is getting so upset. However hard she goes away and trains, however hard Jenny Meadows goes and trains, they are never going to be able to compete with that level of strength and recovery that those levels of elevated testosterone bring.

    “The big issue is, it is not cheating. Caster has done nothing to be in that situation and have those high levels.

    “Either they take the medication to suppress the levels, which may affect how they are able to react and perform within races and training, or they choose to have an operation or they choose not to compete.

    “It is not a situation they can come out of winning.”

  4. Imran Khan

    What I meany was that there are many more pressing issues facing human kind than this .

  5. Michael WALKER

    “The distinction Gladwell draws between ‘a human rights issue’ and ‘a competitive issue’ is quite remarkable. Imagine we applied it to a professional sector other than sport — say, a sweat shop owner claiming his abuse of workers was not a human rights issue but an efficiency issue.”

    False analogy. Caster Semenya has a medical condition which gives her an advantage over all female athletes. She has an excess of testosterone in her system. There is no such analogy in your comparison.
    Excess testosterone means she can run faster and harder.

    It’s unfair to other female athletes to disallow them if they achieved that testosterone excess through artificial means as they would be banned for use of illegal drugs.

  6. Martin

    I have also expressed the same thoughts as the author when this issue surfaced a few years ago. A British female athlete was saying that it shouldn’t be allowed – Semenya was not ‘normal’. I was shouting at the TV screen – none of you are ‘normal’. All elite athletes possess some form of genetic advantage – east Africans appear to have something in their makeup which results in most distance events being won by athletes of this descent. Similarly, most sprinters are of west African descent. And within people of white European descent, those athletes who end up representing their country would probably be on the extreme edge of a normal bell curve distribution, in terms of their physique, VO2 max, etc. In that respect, they are much closer to Semenya than the middle of the bell curve is to them.
    To make it ‘fair’, perhaps we should introduce a handicap system, as they do in horseracing. I might then stand a chance of winning a medal myself

  7. Michael WALKER

    Soon we will have screening for women athletes and only transgender ones will be chosen due to the advantages excess testosterone brings.

    Then consider the outcry from all those “normal” athletes excluded.

  8. Colin Davy

    Martin,

    Perhaps we should allow Usain Bolt to identify as female? He could win gold medals for the next twenty years then.

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  10. steve

    1 she is a woman clear off
    2 she never created herself
    3 the excuses are dumb and lame
    4 with those excuses you might aswell say that men of african origin should not compete in the 100m because they have more advantage than other people.

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