Recently, the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) upheld a ruling of International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) which disqualified athlete Caster Semenya from participating in women’s events unless she brought down her natural testosterone levels which are way higher than average females.
The ruling, deemed as unfair, discriminatory, demonising and even racist, sparked backlash from different sections of society. The definition of woman, based on testosterone levels, was deemed as ‘regressive’ and ‘unscientific’ as it ignored the notions of gender being a spectrum, gender fluidity, and the rights of non-binaries.
While the debate whether sexual identity is rooted in biology, and therefore not malleable versus whether it is a ‘social construct’, which can be a vehicle of oppression as well as liberation is important in itself, the focus here is on the implications of this debate on sports.
Mokgadi Caster Semenya is a South African middle-distance runner and 2016 Olympic gold medallist. Following her victory at the world championships, her unusually quick improvements came under scrutiny. In 2009, she was subjected to sex-testing.
Ultimately, IAAF asked Semenya to bring down her testosterone levels to 5 nmol/L to be able to compete in women’s events. Semenya’s take on the whole thing is that she should be allowed to use her natural gifts to her advantage just as Usain Bolt takes advantage of his long legs and Michael Phelps does so with his long arms.
"God made me the way I am and I accept myself," She said.
The IAAF ruling that forced Semenya to take medical intervention for bringing down her naturally high testosterone levels seemed monstrous to many. Several celebrities, sports stars, and mainstream media houses expressed outrage at the inhuman treatment meted out to the athlete.
Many saw the ruling brimming with racism and called it an attempt of Global North to sabotage prospects of Africans. However, an important detail remained missing from many news reports.
Caster Semenya has XY chromosomes, and biologically speaking, is intersex. The CAS press release clearly states, “The DSD (Differences of Sex Development) covered by the Regulations are limited to athletes with ’46 XY DSD’, that is, if Semenya wasn’t XY, the IAAF ruling wouldn’t apply to her to begin with. Interestingly, the Associated Press, Reuters, NY Times, Washington Post, The Hindu, Times of India, and BBC and many others left out such a crucial fact from their reports.
The key point is that while sports have two categories in which people can complete- male and female, nature doesn’t always put a person in either category. Some individuals with XY chromosomes have predominantly female anatomy, others have XX chromosomes with predominantly male anatomy, and yet others have ambiguous or mixed genitalia. These individuals constitute around 0.018 per cent of the population, that is, less than two out of every 10,000 people.
That despite such small percentage of population, all three of the medallists in the 2016 Olympic women’s 800 – Caster Semenya, Francine Niyonsaba and Margaret Wambui are believed to be intersex shows the seriousness of the matter of allowing XY individuals to compete in women’s sports.
It is to be noted that the testosterone level mandated by IAAF for Semenya, 5 nmol/L, is a figure that not a single healthy woman born with XX chromosomes, ovaries, and producing estrogen at puberty can reach.
CAS indicates that normal female range of testosterone is 0.06 to 1.68 nm/L of while the male range is 7.7 to 29.4. The hormone provides a decided advantage to males over females in sports. Even sports scientist Ross Tucker who testified in favour of Semenya before the court called Y-chromosome the “single greatest advantage” a person can have.
It is due to this fact that sports events have separate categories for men and women, else women would have no chance to excel at the very top level of sports, as men’s world records consistently remain 10-12 percentage point higher than that of women.
So to paint a picture of the ruling against Semenya as a travesty to human rights is inaccurate. There is no human right for an intersex person to participate in women’s sports, just as there is no human right for a 25-year-old cricketer to participate in under-19.
It is also inaccurate to say that the IAAF is forcing females with naturally high testosterone levels to decrease hormone levels by external intervention. Individuals with XX chromosomes have no bar on testosterone levels for participation in women’s sports.
Semenya can still compete in open and male categories without changing her hormone levels, so she is only being denied participation in the female category. Therefore, one can clearly see that the Usain Bolt and Michael Phelps analogy is fallacious.
If long legs and long hands were the basis of categorisation in sports (based on the fact that they provided a decided advantage as Y-chromosome does in males and weight does in boxing), Bolt and Phelps would have no right to compete in category different from theirs.
Proponents of gender fluidity who argue that society is moving away from the regressive binary of male and female and sports should follow suit, miss the whole point of protection accorded to females in sports.
Young girls see female sportsperson as their role-models, who inspire them to put in hard-work and sacrifice that excellence in the game demands. That is why professional chess, a game with no requirement of muscular power, has separate tournaments for women, not as an insult to their intelligence, but for the purpose of creating more and more female role-models.
The field of sports constitutes one of the most powerful theatre for women. If intersex individuals are allowed to compete freely in women’s sports, they may soon come to dominate the field, destroying the whole point of separate category for women.
Not that the debates over Eurocentric norms of femininity and masculinity, racial prejudice, popular representation of women and discrimination against LGBTQ (Semenya is a lesbian) aren’t important, but to extract an ideologically pretty outcome disregarding the facts of the case won’t help.
Such blind pursuit of ideological agenda wouldn’t just “reform” sports out of existence, but will also be detrimental for women, who have proven their mettle taking the advantage of strict meritocracy of the field.
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