The continuing case of South African runner Caster Semenya and her fight against the IAAF’s restrictions on her, and others’, bodies reached its likely conclusion Tuesday.
The Supreme Court of Switzerland dismissed her appeal of the Court of Arbitration For Sport, upholding standards on what are acceptable levels of testosterone in the blood of female competitors (5 nanomoles per liter. Most women have 0.12 to 1.79). The ruling doesn’t leave Semenya really anywhere to go at this point, and she has said repeatedly she won’t take testosterone-lowering medication, or undergo invasive surgery. All this means her career very likely is over. At least at the distance she has conquered, as the rules only apply to middle-distance races, and Semeya has been training for the 200m sprint of late. If you think the rules only applying to certain distance races that Semenya competes in kind of smells, you are not wrong.
It’s been a long and winding road, so if you need a refresher it’s totally understandable. Semenya won the Olympic 800m in both 2012 and 2016, as well as three World Championships. However, in 2018 the IAAF ruled that her testosterone levels are higher than the average woman’s, creating an unfair advantage, and hence she, and others in the same situation, would have to take testosterone-suppressants, run with men, or only run in intersex events. The rules went into effect in May 2019.
Semenya is believed to have a form of hyperandrogenism. She was forced to undergo sex testing in 2009 (an unpleasant process in itself), the results of which were never released publicly, though some reports did leak. Semenya returned to competition in 2010 and had competed freely until 2019.
The rules themselves have come under severe scrutiny, especially as to whether they hold up to actual science. This article does a magnificent job of laying out all the problems with the rules, but to sum up:
- The rules conflate sex and gender, which the IAAF itself set into motion with its rules on gender.
- It only discriminates against one form of hyperandrogenism. There is a form that affects some women who only have XX chromosomes (some women with the condition have XY chromosomes), and yet they still produce higher testosterone.
- The science itself may be flawed.
And let’s be clear. Semenya hasn’t doped. She hasn’t artificially boosted her testosterone. She has violated no doping regulation. The testosterone her body produces is completely natural.
And this gets to the heart of it. It’s unclear how much Semenya’s testosterone being above “normal” helps her. In fact, her 2012 gold medal was awarded to her after the fact, as she’d finished second behind Russia’s Mariya Savinova-Farnosova who was caught doping (back to this in a bit).
While Semenya is certainly decorated, it’s not like she’s redefined the sport. Her best time is a full second off the world record, and she only has one time in the Top 25. She’s great, she wins, but she’s not doing so in an unassailable fashion.
Second, it’s not as if her condition allowed her to roll up to both Olympics in a pair of jeans and Chuck Taylor’s, stub out a smoke, and blow everyone away. Semenya has trained intensely most of her life, just like every other Olympian has, in order to get where she is. In 2016 she won the 800m by a full second, but again it was a full two seconds behind the world record and a second behind her best time. She’s not doing things that haven’t been seen before.
Whatever Semenya’s “advantages” are, if they indeed exist, come naturally. Where does the IAAF and IOC draw that line? For instance — and this is just something I’m familiar with thanks to my past life — the Chicago Blackhawks’ Duncan Keith has a lung capacity about 15-20 percent greater than just about every other player in the NHL. It’s what has allowed him to become a two-time Norris Trophy winner and two-time gold medalist, to go along with his three Stanley Cup rings. He’s had this “advantage” since he entered the league. His lungs just convert oxygen into his blood higher than most anyone on the planet, and it’s allowed him to play longer and more effectively than pretty much every other defenseman of his era. Should that be capped in some way? Of course not. It’s been widely known that Michael Phelps’s body just happens to produce about half the lactic-acid of a normal human, reducing his fatigue.
It’s hard to ignore the role Semenya’s race plays in this as well, along with transphobia. When she won in 2016, the fifth-place runner had these wonderful thoughts to share:
Joanna Jozwik also appeared to controversially claim that she was proud to have finished as the “first European” and the “second white” in the race.
“The three athletes who were on the podium raise a lot of controversy. I must admit that for me it is a little strange that the authorities do nothing about this. These colleagues have a very high testosterone level, similar to a male’s, which is why they look how they look and run like they run.”
You could dismiss that as just one runner, bitter over losing, but these types of thoughts are always bubbling under the surface. Lynsey Sharp, who finished sixth said this:
“Everyone can see it’s two separate races so there’s nothing I can do,” she said earlier this summer.
“If you take away the obvious ones it’s actually really competitive,” she added. “For me, it’s not a new thing running against those girls. I’ve competed against Caster since 2008 so it’s nothing new for me.
Suspicion and derision of Black athletes and their bodies has a long history. If Semenya were white, it’s not much more than a puddle-jump in thought to think this might have gone differently.
In addition to all that, if the IAAF wants to pretend that Semenya was running, or will run, in events with competitors pure as the driven snow, it’s living in a fantasy world just next to Narnia. Again, Semenya’s first gold medal came as a result of the winner doping, and athletes across all Olympic sports, both men and women, have been illegally trying to enhance their bodies for decades. Perhaps it’s time the IAAF and IOC, give up a fight they long ago lost and just start managing how athletes treat themselves and keep them within some sort of parameters. It’s going to happen anyway and has been for some time.
Certainly, the debate over transgender athletes comes with some very tough questions about what’s an advantage, what’s fair. But Semenya is female, has been since birth, and identifies that as her gender as well. This is only partially that debate, if it is at all.
Semenya has some work to do if she is going to qualify for Tokyo 2021 in the 200m. Like every other sport, track has been on pause since March, and she’ll need the time. She needs to cut a second off her latest 200m time to qualify for the delayed Olympics. Given her focus and determination, she probably won’t think about the amount of horseshit that has caused her to even have to try.