The Obsession With Caster Semenya's Body Was Racist From The Very Beginning

A slide from Dr. Stéphane Bermon’s presentation at a 2012 conference
Screenshot: Katrina Karkazis and Rebecca Jordan-Young (Feminist Foundations)

A week before the 2012 Olympics, a group of researchers and academics gathered for the International Convention on Science, Education, and Medicine in Sport in Glasgow, just over 400 miles north of London, where the Games were being held. One of those athletes was South African runner Caster Semenya, who burst onto the scene in 2009 to win the women’s 800 meters in scorching time. Almost immediately, competitors, coaches, federations and the media began questioning whether the then 18-year-old athlete was a woman, and whether she should be allowed to run against women.

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Some of the researchers at this conference were prepared to weigh in—not on the matter of Semenya’s gender, but on the separate question of how much testosterone a woman should be allowed to possess naturally in her body while racing in the “female category.” In 2011, the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) implemented a testosterone ceiling for female athletes, saying that women with high testosterone had an “unfair advantage” over their lower-testosterone peers. (Semenya’s testosterone level has never been released but is widely assumed to be naturally higher than most women.)

Dr. Stephane Bermon, the head of the IAAF’s medical and doping commission, was at the Glasgow convention to discuss the new policy. He started his presentation on the topic of testosterone in sports with two slides next to each other. One showed a woman from a famous 18th-century painting; the other was a photograph of a male bodybuilder. Here’s how Katrina Karkazis and Rebecca Jordan-Young describe the start of Bermon’s presentation in their paper, “The Power of Testosterone: Obscuring Race and Regional Bias in the Regulation of Women Athletes,” which was published in Feminist Formations in June 2018:

He began with a slide entitled “Men and Women: Different Phenotypes” consisting of two side-by-side images. On the left was Francisco Goya’s late 18th-century masterpiece La Maja Desnuda, an idealized Venus of a woman: sensual, curved, nude, her opaline skin lustrous. In contrast to that milky complexion is a small thatch of dark pubic hair. Her cheeks are rosy and her brown hair falls in curly tendrils. She reclines, arms raised behind her head, eyes looking straight at the viewer: she is so luxuriously sedentary, she looks as though she may never move from her velvet divan.

The photo on the right could not present a starker contrast. With his oiled, dark brown skin stretched tight over superhumanly developed muscles, Kenneth “Flex” Wheeler smiles at the viewer [see figure 2]. The bodybuilder, whom Arnold Schwarzenegger called “one of the greatest,” stands in a “front lat spread,” a banana-colored Speedo just covering his genitals: fists on his narrow waist, arms bent at a right angle, pectorals pushed up and protruding out, elbows pivoting forward, thighs and biceps bulging, with stomach sucked in. Every inch of him is dense, striated, and rippled. A sculpted, comic book hero with approximately zero body fat, Wheeler is the very image of power.


Bermon then displayed a third image, of a female bodybuilder with bulging muscles, suggesting that the photo represented a woman with high testosterone and linking hyperandrogenism—the medical name for high testosterone in women—to steroid use. Female athletes with higher testosterone, he suggested (according to Karkazis and Jordan-Young’s paper) have an unfair advantage even if their bodies are unmodified chemically or surgically. His goal was to make female bodies “fair” in the “fairer sex” sense of the word.

“The difference in phenotype, of course, explains the difference in performances, because as you know, men are much more slender, tall, and strength [sic] than female and it’s very easy to be convinced about that,” Bermon said, according to the paper. He also said clitoral size is the most important trait for determining whether a female athlete with naturally high testosterone has a performance advantage over her lower-testosterone peers because it “gives you very good information about the level of virilization,” or testosterone sensitivity.


“You clearly see that what we call normal male and female, we should not have any overlap in testosterone concentration, as well as you do not have any overlap in world best performances, whatever the event considered,” he said.


“I couldn’t believe it,” Karkazis told Deadspin of her reaction to Bermon’s presentation. “It was a scientific and medical conference. So all of this was happening inside that context, where there are presentations on genetics and other things. It was sort of logically incoherent and unscientific, right, pulling on all of these problematic tropes about race and gender.” Karkazis said the women around her—there were approximately 20 people present for Bermon’s presentation, most of them women—audibly gasped.

Bermon did not respond to requests for comment about his 2012 presentation. In an email, an IAAF spokesman wrote, “The report you reference misrepresents Dr. Bermon’s 2012 presentation and his position on this subject. The authors of this report have stated publicly their desire to discredit the IAAF’s Eligibility Regulations for the Female Classification, so their report should be considered in this context. For Dr Bermon’s actual position, please see this paper published in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism in 2015.”


Bermon doesn’t offer any visual aids in the paper, nor does he do much to clarify the views Karkazis and Jordan-Young attribute to him.

“Although no randomized, placebo-controlled study has ever been conducted to prove the effects of androgens on physical performance in women, it is unlikely that so many cheating female athletes would keep on using such banned but detectable substances if they had no performance-enhancing effects.”


In other words, while seeking to prove that women with naturally high testosterone have an unfair advantage over their competitors, Bermon admits no one has actually studied the effects of testosterone on women’s athletic performance. Instead, he assumes that because female athletes have used synthetic testosterone, it must provide an advantage.

Two weeks ago, Semenya and her lawyers appealed the latest version of the IAAF’s testosterone limits, which specifically targets female middle-distance runners like her, to the Court of Arbitration of Sport. (The decision is expected later this month.) While the IAAF is dressing up these rules in the language of science, Bermon’s presentation and others from researchers reveal their true character: a racist, sexist policy intended to police cultural ideas about what an ideal female body should look like and how it should perform.


“It was fascinating to me that that didn’t make it out of that meeting for so long,” Karkazis said—she saw just a couple of tweets about the substance of Bermon’s presentation. “Of course nobody would know, because there was no one there.”

Semenya’s case is very similar to the one that the Court of Arbitration of Sport ruled on in 2015, when Indian runner Dutee Chand challenged the testosterone limits. In Chand’s case, the IAAF showed a 1-to-3-percent performance difference between female athletes with high testosterone and their lower-testosterone counterparts, far less than the 10- to-12-percent performance gap typically found between male and female athletes. The Court decided there wasn’t enough evidence to permit discrimination against women with higher testosterone and force them to either surgically or chemically alter their bodies. The IAAF was told to come back in two years with better science.


This time around, the IAAF is equipped with a new study and more a narrow scope. Instead of imposing testosterone limits on all disciplines, they’ve focused exclusively on middle-distance events, because their research (which was not subject to peer review) found high-testosterone female athletes have the greatest athletic advantage over their peers. And, the IAAF has ruled, the cause of the high testosterone must be the result of “Differences of Sexual Development,” so women with medical conditions like polycystic ovarian syndrome—which can result in elevated testosterone levels—will not be subject to the new restrictions. In other words, the rules are not about testosterone itself, but about how it got in a woman’s body.


That means the rules target one woman in particular—Semenya (who is not even the current world record holder in the 800 meters). The IAAF didn’t apply the testosterone ceilings to the sprint events, so Chand, a 100-meter specialist, is no longer affected. Hammer thrown and pole vault, however, weren’t included in the restrictions, despite the fact that the association’s own flawed research—it didn’t include a control group—singled out those two athletic disciplines as being the most affected by testosterone levels.


Even before Semenya was forced to submit to a barrage of degrading and humiliating tests, Pierre Weiss, then-secretary general of the IAAF, had voiced his personal opinion: “It is clear that she is a woman but maybe not 100 percent.” He based that conclusion strictly on appearance; like Bermon, he used a white northern European lens to determine the femininity of a black woman from the Global South. Black female athletes have a long history of being masculinized by white men. Would Bermon have even considered using an image of a black woman or black female athlete as an exemplar of the “female phenotype” in his slideshow? It probably never crossed his mind.

Shortly after Bermon gave his presentation in Glasgow, four female athletes from rural areas in the Global South were flagged by the IAAF at the 2012 Olympics for possessing high levels of natural testosterone. The athletes were then subject to all manner of invasive testing, including inspection of their “breasts, genitals, body hair patterns, internal reproductive organs, and basic body morphology in detail, and interviewed them as to gender identity, behavior, and sexuality,” according to Karkazis’ and Jordan-Younge’s paper.


After determining that these women possessed higher than average levels of testosterone, they recommended gonadectomies in order to essentially obliterate their testosterone levels and enable them to compete in the “female category.” In addition, the women underwent surgeries like vaginoplasty and were placed on estrogen replacement therapy, neither of which relate to their testosterone levels. The report on the four women was co-authored by Bermon.

Race is not a biological category, so the incidence of HA or intersex women should be the same across all races. Yet most of the women that the IAAF has “discovered” in the past decade as possessing high testosterone come from the Global South. “Most women in the Global North who would have had high T have undergone routinized medical intervention early in life because that was part of the medical protocol in the U.S.,” Karkazis said, “whereas women in other parts of the world may or may not have, but it certainly wasn’t routinized in the same way that it was here.” (The United Nations has called for stopping these kinds of interventions on intersex children.)


The 2018 regulations that Semenya is appealing make clear that surgery is not required to comply with the testosterone limits in the “restricted events.” (It wasn’t officially required when it happened in 2013 either.) The rules advise the use of hormonal contraceptives instead of gonadectomies in order to lower women’s natural testosterone. If women with high testosterone choose not to comply, their choices are either to compete with the men, or compete in an intersex category that doesn’t exist yet. Bermon is confident that third category will be created within a decade, but that doesn’t help athletes competing now. In either scenario, the IAAF is deciding athletes’ gender and sexual identity for them, and disclosing their medical information to the world. 

The physical examinations, the blood work, the surgeries, the contraceptives—all of it seems designed to correct the impression that woman can run that fast and can fly that high. By allowing the IAAF to place limits on women like Semenya, we cheat ourselves out of expanding our ideas of women’s athletic potential.


These efforts to “protect” women mean the times they run in mixed-gender competition aren’t considered Olympic qualifying times. In mixed events, women can paced by men who run faster, which could help women outpace their usual times. But these times, achieved by women, are not considered “women’s times.”


Jennifer Doyle, a professor of English at the University of California at Davis who writes about sports (including on Deadspin), wrote this in 2016:

“The spectacle of mixed gender racing unravels fascistic models of sex/gender difference and sex/gender purity. Every woman runner competes with the lie that men are faster than women. That fiction can only be maintained by ensuring that men and women never run with each other—when men and women run with each other, they scale down each other’s understanding of their differences.”


Rather than protecting it, the IAAF and other athletic federations are guilty of suppressing the athletic potential of women. The athletic federations—not the women they’re claiming to protect—need performance differences between men and women to be as stark as possible, in order to claim that these categories need protecting.

The IAAF has spent nearly a decade treating Semenya and other high-testosterone black and brown women like they’re the greatest enemy of women’s sports. They hide behind claims of science and fairness, but underneath those arguments is a slideshow from 2012 that makes clear this is not about testosterone but about gender stereotypes. But women’s sports aren’t so easily destroyed; just like the women who participate in them, they’ve already endured decades of figurative and literal assault. “Women’s sports will not disappear because women with different hormone levels are allowed to compete against each other,” Doyle said.


Dvora Meyers is a staff writer at Deadspin.

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