The Debate About Caster Semenya Isn't About Fairness

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What is it, exactly, that makes me a woman? Is it my breasts? If so, is it because they are a certain size? Is it that I have a womb? Does it matter that I have no idea if my womb works because I’ve never tried to get pregnant? Is it my two X chromosomes or my level of testosterone? I have no idea the status of either my chromosomes or testosterone for the simple reason there’s never been a good medical reason to test them. Asked to prove that I am a woman, I’d probably come up with this—everyone says I’m one.

I find myself returning to that thought exercise as Caster Semenya competes in the 800 meters this week. Semenya was told her entire life that she was a woman. Until she wasn’t.


There’s no brief way to summarize everything that’s happened to the runner from South Africa. She blew away the competition in 800 meters in 2009's World Championships and speculation quickly ensued about her sex and gender. That was followed by an Australian paper reporting that an anonymous source said an examination had found that Semenya had internal testes and no womb as well as higher testosterone than a “normal” female athlete. The International Association of Athletics Federations later confirmed it had ordered a “gender verification test” and British bookmakers took bets on the results. But much of the reporting on Semenya’s own body remains based on that Daily Telegraph report.

A year and so many press reports later, Semenya told the New York Times in 2010 that those medical results about her own body still had not been shared with her. Reporters call her intersex, although I couldn’t find a report in which Semenya herself said she was intersex, and that doesn’t stop articles on intersex athletes from turning her into a news peg. (Despite headlines like these, Semenya has also never self-identified as queer. Her life is increasingly not her own.) Semenya’s body has become whatever reporters need it to be. As Kate Fagan passed along on Twitter: “I know Semenya is a woman because people are trying to control her body.”


Separate from the media machine, the IAAF responded to the Semenya stories with new guidelines, delivering the term hyperandrogenism into the sports realm. Essentially, if there were “reasonable grounds” for question (and that is in and of itself is suspect because who defines “reasonable grounds?” Competitors upset over being beaten?), that athlete would be flagged and her testosterone level would be tested. Too high and she would be deemed to have an unfair advantage. As Slate’s Daniel Engber observes: “They tried to make the testing of an athlete’s femininity something more akin to testing her for doping.” This isn’t about measuring your womanhood, they said, it’s about fairness.

But it’s harder to buy that argument—this is about fairness—when you read about what happens to a woman “flagged” and tested. Here is how Engber summarized what would happen in such a case:

If an athlete like Semenya failed the initial hormone screen, she’d be examined in more detail to see if her testosterone was “functional” enough to give her an advantage. How would the doctors figure out if her testosterone was functional? They’d check how much of it was bound to her receptors, screen her for known mutations in those same receptors, weigh the hoarseness of her voice, rate the development of her pubic hair and breasts, evaluate her muscles, size her labia, palpate her vagina, and measure her anogenital distance. In other words, they’d try to calculate the degree to which she’d been virilized—or one might say, made “manly”—by her intersex condition.

Imagine that, having a doctor measure your pubic hair and test your vagina to make sure it is vagina-like enough to be considered a woman’s. For all the scientific coldness of that paragraph, I still found myself shuddering at the thought of such a procedure, followed by a nagging feeling that the testing didn’t sound that different from the old systems, a process created by a group dominated by men defining for women what men thought was womanly enough.

To compete, a woman had to essentially womanize herself—as dictated by an “expert medical panel,” which decides if the results are satisfactory enough.

In such a case, the Expert Medical Panel may specify conditions under which it would be acceptable for the athlete to compete. These conditions may necessitate the athlete undergoing treatment by her personal physician to normalise her androgen levels and, in such a case, it would be the athlete’s responsibility, in close consultation with her medical team, to decide on the advisability of proceeding with such treatment. If an athlete does decide to undergo treatment as a means to continue participating in women’s competition, before returning to such competition, her case would be referred back to the Expert Medical Panel to satisfy itself that the conditions previously imposed had been met. The IAAF would then be responsible for monitoring the athlete’s compliance with the conditions on an ongoing basis by conducting regular testing of the athlete, including on an unannounced basis.


Semenya hasn’t said what she’s been put through, but her times dropped and reporters have assumed that’s because she was undergoing some sort of chemical treatment. Then the testosterone regulations were suspended after Indian runner Dutee Chand challenged them and won in the Court of Arbitration for Sport. Now Semenya’s running faster and she’s the favorite to win the 800 meters. This has added media attention to her race, although many reporters will insist this is all just about fairness, testosterone, and rules.

There are plenty of research articles you can read about how testosterone impacts female athletes. Testosterone, though, is an easy out, a way to avoid the uncomfortable fact that the very definition of womanhood has been a longstanding obsession of the Olympics, which at one point required women to parade nude and have their genitals examined so they could get a Certificate of Femininity. That got replaced with a cheek swab for chromosomes, but there were problems with that system too. The Olympics dropped the chromosome testing in 1999 but kept the right to gender test if needed. Then Semenya started running.


So the Olympics, the single biggest stage for most female athletes, dove back into deciding who is a woman. The words around it have changed, but the heart of the process hasn’t.

Sports reporters have found ways of dancing around what this is. That’s why you’ll see the word “fair” in so many headlines about Semenya. Sports Illustrated wants to know “Is it fair for Caster Semenya to compete against women at the Rio Olympics?” The Telegraph insists “Caster Semenya competing at Rio Olympics 2016 is not fair on anybody.” The Guardian dubbed her a ticking time bomb. Malcolm Gladwell put it bluntly that “people need to understand that an athletic competition has to have rules; otherwise there can be no competition.”


See, ladies, this is just about fairness! About leveling the playing field! About following the rules! Geez, women, calm down. We’re trying to make your races more fair for you!

One tactic, used by SI among others, is warning that this could be the end of women’s sports, as if this and not underfunding, sexual violence, and harassment were what kept women out of sports. Reporters will harp that this is about maintaining women as a protected class, ignoring that the legal term protected class means a group you cannot discriminate against—making this the bizarre act of asking if Semenya is too manly to be a woman, in which case she would receive the bizarro right to be discriminated against.


All elite athletes are genetic anomalies, but this is the only one being singled out as the signifier of womanhood. No one trait defines a person’s gender. While the world is taking steps to understand gender fluidity, gender expression, and sexual identity, the Olympics cannot stop its quest to define one gender, definitively, in the name of protecting that gender. Peel back enough layers, and it starts to read like the language that lead to the “immoral shitshow” of baseball’s drug wars:

By laying out what’s allowable and unallowable, testing creates the conditions for its own subversion, which serves as proof that testing isn’t working, and so requires the testing regime to be given new tools beyond actual testing for proscribed chemistry—the use of inferences and suspicious patterns of behavior as evidence, for example. An agreement to submit to testing is always a decision to go crashing down the slippery slope.


The latest slippery slope in the cruel Olympic sport of “are you woman enough” has led here. Nobody would ever mistake me for an Olympic athlete and yet I find myself sympathizing with Semenya. I think about all the times my life has been defined for me by my womanhood: The thousands of dollars and countless hours spent turning my dark, frizzy hair into shiny, straight auburn locks because I think that’s what men find more attractive. The dance I do in my head during meetings making sure that I come across as assertive but not bitchy. The time I didn’t get a job that I thought I had locked up only to get passed over and, at a loss as to why, an older journalist told me, “The problem was you don’t have a penis.”

How would I feel if suddenly a defining characteristic of my entire life, my womanhood, was taken away from me? Wiping away all the times I was told I was a woman, treated like a woman, discriminated against because I am a woman all due to the reasoning that my existence made things unfair for other women? I cannot imagine such horror, but I know what my response would be. What do you mean I’m not a woman? Everyone treats me like one.