Caster Semenya is an elite middle-distance runner from South Africa. She won two gold medals at the 2016 Rio Olympic games, and on the pages of sports magazines and websites, her amazing feats are lauded. But behind the scenes, she has been subjected to dehumanizing and invasive gender verification testing, and now, in a major blow to her career, the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) has ruled that the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) can legally discriminate against her.
Semenya has naturally high levels of testosterone, and the IAAF feels that gives her an unfair advantage. To level the playing field, the IAAF is forcing Semenya to lower her testosterone with approved medications. The decision was supported by CAS earlier this month.
In an official statement from South African human rights organization Gender Dynamix, received via email, author Greyson Thela writes:
“Despite the uncontested resolution adopted by the United Nations Human Rights Council
condemning the discriminatory regulations for women in sport and the waves of support
Caster Semenya received as an athlete who happens to be intersexed and gender diverse,
once again the world of sport has showcased its inability to at the very least accommodate
bodily diversity without compromising talent and excellence.”
Bodily diversity isn’t being accommodated at all; in fact, the IAAF is railing against it. On a recent episode of The Daily Show with Trevor Noah, Noah highlighted that every elite athlete has some competitive advantage that propels him or her to the head of the pack. Some element of their body or genetics gives them the ability to beat everyone else. He referenced Michael Phelps, whose body produces half the amount of lactic acid as other swimmers – something that has helped him avoid muscle fatigue and swim faster than his peers. He has been praised for this difference, but now Semenya’s differences are a point of contention.
The IAAF’s decision is a disregard for women’s natural ability. Who’s to say what the limits of a woman’s body are? Why underestimate them? Why force them to shrink themselves to compete at a level that is deemed “appropriate”?
But going further, there’s something more sinister at play here than sexism. It’s not that Semenya’s better than the other women. It’s that she’s too much like a man, that she’s not a woman in the same way all the other women runners are; hence the gender testing to ensure she’s actually a woman.
Semenya is widely believed to be intersex, though she’s never publicly confirmed this. Intersex isn’t a term that’s easily defined. It has a host of meanings but typically refers to men and women whose physical appearances and anatomy don’t fight tidily into the gender binary. But instead of working to understand this, the IAAF is singling Semenya out as “different” and forcing her, medically, into one of two boxes.
We live in a time when our understanding of gender as binary is being challenged and rejected. People are identifying in ways that are more ambiguous, and that may make people uncomfortable. But there’s a difference between being uncomfortable and weaponizing a misunderstanding to publicly humiliate an elite athlete.
Caster Semenya shouldn’t be the scapegoat for the IAAF’s outdated understanding of gender. She should be the catalyst for a nuanced conversation about what her needs are and about respectfully handling gender classifications for all athletes from this point forward. This moment demands that the IAAF, and all of us, do more, think more critically, and think with more open minds.
In an official statement, also received via email, from the Astraea Lesbian Foundation For Justice, intersex activist and Astraea Program Associate Loé Petit writes, “What we are seeing is an ideological shrinking around traditional gender stereotypes instead of an honest discussion on the relevance of binary sex-segregated sports categories.”
Today, this decision is detrimental to Semenya. But tomorrow, what could this mean for other intersex athletes and trans athletes and genderqueer athletes?
The IAAF has pushed this conversation backward when forward movement is absolutely essential to the future of sport. At some point, hopefully soon, the IAAF will have to expand its classifications and let go of its rigid point of view. South African officials are challenging that view, and the rising class of athletes will demand change. Prescription medications and discrimination are not acceptable solutions – today or ever.
Cover photo: Eurosport