Zehner: The War Against Caster Semenya

Sporting agencies’ attacks on hyperandrogenism are unjust.

by Callum Zehner | 5/1/18 2:05am

 Caster Semenya has just come out of another winning streak. She easily captured gold medals in both the women’s 800m and 1500m events at the recent Commonwealth Games on the Gold Coast in Australia. These successes have been added to her larger list of achievements, including multiple Olympic and World Championship medals. Yet her running career is now seriously threatened. New regulations issued by the International Association of Athletics Federations could see Semenya, and others like her, unable to compete in their respective events in the future. This is ludicrous.

Semenya is hyperandrogenous, a condition wherein the natural level of testosterone in her body is unusually high. In essence, she is a female who was raised as such but exhibits certain male physiological traits. As a result, her athletic career, since its inception, has been marred by controversy. The latest dispute has involved the IAAF’s new regulations, which state that female athletes with naturally high levels of testosterone will be unable, starting November, to compete in races between 400m and a mile. The only way for hypoandrogenic athletes to avoid being banned under these new rules is to undergo treatment to bring their testosterone levels down to within an “acceptable” range.

This bold new direction from the IAAF seems to corroborate what detractors have long claimed about Semenya: that she is, for all intents and purposes, a man. Her critics, and critics of all hypoandrogenic athletes, state that her genetic advantage is insurmountable and therefore unfair. And many of her most prominent critics, perhaps understandably, are her fellow competitors. In an especially notorious incident, Semenya, having just won gold in the 800m at the 2016 Olympics, leaned in to hug two of her fellow racers, who proceeded to ignore her and continue consoling themselves. The pettiness of this display illustrates the degree to which her competitors simply view her as a cheater.

It is hard to disagree that hypoandrogenic athletes have a significant genetic advantage –– clearly Semenya has benefitted from her own. Nonetheless, these ongoing attacks on hypoandrogenic athletes are fundamentally unmerited. An important contributing factor to any athletic success is genetic advantage. Usain Bolt is the fastest man alive in part due to the length of his legs and abnormally high percentage of fast-twitch fibers; these are traits he was born with, just like Semenya’s additional testosterone. To put it differently, no one has ever tried to disqualify an NBA player from competing purely because he was too tall. Any attempts to determine when genetic characteristics become too advantageous for athletes are invariably going to be the product of arbitrary boundaries. Therefore, they should not be attempted.

There even appear to be arbitrary distinctions within the realms of excess testosterone. Men who have naturally high levels of testosterone experience no issues in international sports, they are not thought of as having an unfair leg up. In fact, male athletes who can prove they have naturally low levels of testosterone can take testosterone supplements without it being considered doping by the World Anti-Doping Agency. Therefore, with male athletes, it is obvious that there is no controversy surrounding typical testosterone levels and issues of fairness. For some reason, however, these issues do hold weight when it comes to hypoandrogenic women.

The new regulations also force women like Semenya to go through a number of measures if they wish to continue competing, such as the use of hormone-suppressing drugs or the removal of internal testes. Putting aside the invasive nature of these measures, they are also simply humiliating. For these hypoandrogenic athletes to subject themselves to procedures to either confirm their sex or to make themselves an “acceptable level” of female would evidently be uncomfortable. One can only imagine how demeaning it has been for Semenya to have had to prove her sex to the athletic community multiple times throughout her career. And, fundamentally, there is no just reason for hypoandrogenic athletes to go through such measures in order to compete.

In addition, the science used to justify the IAAF’s new regulations, a study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, is hotly debated. The correlations drawn between testosterone levels and athletic performance have been strongly contested, with the links instead being attributed by some to pure chance. This does not appear to be a strong foundation on which to threaten many people’s careers.

Ultimately, it seems that some commentators view Semenya as a real threat to the traditional categorization of sport, with women competing against women and men competing against men. They foresee an apocalyptic future where women’s sports are dominated by women with a testosterone advantage who go on to out-compete their typically-female opponents. But again, the insidious false supposition here is that the hypoandrogenic athletes are somehow not entirely female. Yet they indisputably are. The IAAF is not levelling the playing field with its new regulations, it is hindering a number of athletes who have the right to exploit their natural advantages. The playing field is level. All there is left to do is let Semenya enjoy her success unhindered.