Caster Semenya – running into controversy: genes, gender and sport

Sunday 3 November, 16:0017:15, ConservatoryContemporary Controversies

Earlier this year, the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) – international sport’s highest court – ruled that women with naturally higher levels of testosterone cannot compete in women’s sport events unless they reduce their testosterone levels with medication. CAS was hearing an appeal by a South African middle-distance runner, Caster Semenya, against a ruling by the governing body of athletics, the IAAF, that she cannot compete in certain events, from the 400 metres to the mile, because she has an unfair advantage. Semenya, who was born and raised as a woman, was found to have a condition called androgen insensitivity syndrome (AIS) and therefore has unusually high testosterone levels. From the start of her career, her androgynous looks and the remarkable improvements in her performance had led to questions about her sex.

Semenya and many who support her have been critical of the ruling. It certainly raises some important questions about elite sports – and the treatment of people with a ‘difference of sexual development’ (DSD). CAS has admitted that the ruling is discriminatory. Though Semenya’s condition is rare, it is clear that genetics plays a major role in sporting success. But it is still unclear just how much Semenya’s condition has given her a competitive advantage. For example, while she has won multiple international titles, she is not the world-record holder in her event.

It is unquestionable that high testosterone levels can be a physical advantage in sport. But then, biological advantages are an inherent part of elite sport. Basketball players are usually very tall and recent studies claim to have found that most elite power athletes have a specific genetic variant related to the muscle composition. If these cases of biological advantage are allowed, why should we treat Semenya differently?

On the other hand, the IAAF has defended the decision to ban Semenya, saying that regulations on athletes with differences of sexual development were a necessary, reasonable and proportionate means of protecting fair and meaningful competition. It has also said that empowering girls and women through athletics was a core value of the IAAF. That is why the female classification is protected. And indeed, though we live in a world in which non-discrimination is seen as an important value, there are exceptions. Thus, a discrimination, which is seen as a counterbalance to an injustice, is often not seen as problematic. Is Semenya’s case an example for a necessary, positive discrimination?

There is also the question of who defines categories in sports. Though there has been gender testing in sports since the 1950s, the question of a person’s sex still poses many difficulties. Semenya was raised as a woman and says she feels like woman. But is a person’s subjective feeling – and gender testing – a sufficient basis for classifying athletes? On the one hand, transgender has become an accepted category in recent years, often based not so much on biology as on identity. Yet, the IAAF argues that it was convinced there are some contexts, sport being one of them, where biology has to trump identity.

What are we to make of Caster Semenya’s case? What does it mean for elite sport, which promises a level playing field? And can we separate sports from other areas of society in which discrimination against people with different sexual developments is a taboo? Can there be sport without discrimination?