Semenya: Is testosterone an unfair advantage?
Has won 30 races in a row
South African sprinter Caster Semenya has won two Olympic gold medals and 30 consecutive 800-meter sprints, and dominated her sport. Now she’s “the subject of one of the biggest controversies the track-and-field world has seen,” said Rick Maese in The Washington Post. Last week, a court overseeing the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) ruled that intersex athletes like Semenya, 28, who naturally produce high levels of testosterone, cannot compete in several types of women’s track events unless they artificially reduce those levels. Testosterone can create larger, stronger muscles. In denying her appeal, the court acknowledged its ruling was discriminatory, but said “such discrimination is a necessary, reasonable, and proportionate means of achieving the IAAF’s aim of preserving the integrity of female athletics.”
This ruling is based on the now-disproven myth that gender is binary, said Ariana Eunjung Cha, also in the Post. Science now knows that as many as one in 60 people are intersex, with physical characteristics that don’t match our traditional views of male and female. But the IAAF—and many women runners Semenya has trounced—refuse to accept her as she is. “For me, she is not a woman,” Italian runner Elisa Cusma complained. “She is a man.” How unfair, said Nancy Armour in USA Today. Semenya “did not choose this condition, any more than Michael Phelps chose his inordinately wide wingspan,” or a 7-foot-3 basketball center chose his body. And yet we cheer their biological advantages—and penalize hers.
There’s a good reason to classify athletes by gender, said Jonathan Gault in LetsRun.com. In track and field, top male athletes consistently are about 10 percent faster than top female athletes. And in its ruling, the court stated that the IAAF’s testosterone restrictions apply only to female athletes with XY chromosomes—that is, the same kind that men have. This indicates Semenya has male chromosomes and internal testes as well as high levels of testosterone. Is this really fair to other women runners? To put that question in perspective, consider this: Though intersex people are rare, it’s believed all three medalists from the 2016 Olympic women’s 800-meter final are intersex, Semenya included. “If that doesn’t make you understand from a simple odds perspective that there needs to be a limit on testosterone in women’s sports, then I don’t know what will.” ■