Stellenbosch — It seems the sports world just doesn't know
what to do with an athlete like Caster Semenya.
The South African runner, and others like her, may present
one of the greatest dilemmas for the perception of fairness in sports.
Athletes like Semenya with intersex conditions — those that
don't conform to standard definitions of male or female — debunk any
presumption that everyone fits neatly into those definitive categories in
According to sports scientist Ross Tucker, "the biology
isn't quite as simple as that."
Semenya's story is well-known. As an 18-year-old newcomer at
the 2009 world championships, she dominated the best women's 800-meter runners.
The gap between her and the defending world champion, who finished second, was
astounding. Semenya celebrated by showing off her bicep muscles, stoking a
controversy sparked hours earlier by revelations that she had undergone sex
She was later sidelined for 11 months by world track's
governing body, the IAAF, and was only cleared to run again in 2010. She
returned and won a silver medal in the 800 at the 2012 Olympics.
Now 25 and the favorite for gold at the Rio Olympics,
Semenya has been pursued by gender questions. But her case has never been about
a man masquerading as a woman.
Semenya is a woman because she says she's a woman, was
legally recognized at birth as female, treated as female, and identified as
female. Nobody can dictate to Semenya what gender she is.
But since the 1950s, track and field has conducted sex
testing to protect women's competitions, initially using very basic sexual
anatomy tests, and later using chromosomes. The tests didn't work.
Also read: Semenya among 137 Rio-bound South Africans
Sex testing in sports should be about preventing an unfair
advantage and, therefore, not about genitalia or chromosomes, which don't make
athletes run faster, jump higher or throw farther.
What does, according to the IAAF, is testosterone.
The IAAF says testosterone is the most significant factor in
athletic performance. Men, generally, have more testosterone than women. In
2011, the IAAF officially drew a line between men and women in terms of
The issue it sought to resolve was hyperandrogenism — high
levels of naturally occurring testosterone in some women that apparently gave
them a competitive advantage.
Tucker said research conducted by the IAAF showed six women
with intersex conditions competed at the 2011 world championships. Joanna
Harper, an expert on gender in sports and a consultant to the IAAF, thinks two
female medalists at this year's indoor world championships are probably
intersex, and estimated 5-10 intersex athletes will compete in track and field
at the Rio Olympics.
Six years after Semenya was subjected to the IAAF tests, the
lid was lifted on her situation in 2015. That's when Indian sprinter Dutee
Chand went to the Court of Arbitration for Sport — the highest court in world
sports — and challenged the IAAF rules that regulated testosterone in
The case forced the IAAF to publicly defend its rules that
for hyperandrogenic women to be eligible to compete as women, their
testosterone levels must be below a certain mark. It came down to a tiny
measurement: how many nanomoles — a billionth of a mole — of testosterone a
woman had per liter of blood. It couldn't be 10 nanomoles or more per liter,
roughly the lower end of the male range. If it was 10 or higher, it had to be
Harper said the testosterone levels of these hyperandrogenic
women could be lowered either through the removal of internal testes or with
Former Olympic runner Bruce Kidd, a professor of physical
education and an adviser to Chand, opposes the testosterone-limiting rule. He
argues that the testosterone is natural in these women, and although men
produce more of it, "there is nothing to say that testosterone is a male
"Dutee and Caster are (competing) with their own
chemicals," Kidd said. "They are fully in keeping with the Olympic
spirit of being true to yourself and playing without doping. So why are they being
castigated for that? I think it is so unfair."
Significantly, the IAAF accepted that its rules were
basically discriminatory but were devised in search of a greater justice:
fairness for women's track and field.
Opponents of the testosterone rule pointed to the natural
advantages of other athletes that aren't regulated, such as Usain Bolt's
fast-twitch muscle fibers, Michael Phelps' big wingspan and former cyclist
Miguel Indurain's huge lung capacity.
Harper, who supports the testosterone-limiting rules,
explained that sports competitions don't have categories for athletes with slow
twitch, short arms or small lungs. But women's sports are protected because if
they weren't, there would be serious ramifications for Olympic qualification.
Chand — and by default, Semenya — won an interim decision
last year in the Court of Arbitration for Sport case, but on a different
reasoning. The IAAF didn't have definitive evidence to show how much of an
advantage the extra testosterone gave hyperandrogenic women. CAS gave the IAAF
until July 2017 to provide the evidence needed to reinstate the rule, which
won't be in place in Rio.
The IAAF said it doesn't comment on individuals who were
managed under its hyperandrogenism regulations, but it still believes in the rules.
Work is ongoing to find evidence.
Harper is involved in that process and expects to be an
expert witness for the IAAF when the case returns to court.
The best evidence might be provided right now by Semenya.
Since the testosterone regulations were shelved, Semenya has
won every major 800-meter race she entered this season — running a personal
best last month and the fastest time anywhere in seven years. Her best time
this year is around four seconds faster than last year.
Tucker predicted it.
At the start of the season, when Semenya was competing at
the South African national championships, Tucker posted a tweet saying she
could break Jarmila Kratochvilova's 33-year-old world record of 1:53.28 for the
800 this season. He thinks that without testosterone regulation, Semenya, a
good athlete anyway, could become untouchable.
"You need a person who comes along and has got all the
attributes that would make an elite athlete, plus they have high testosterone.
Then you will get a freakishly good athlete, and that's the case with
Semenya," Tucker said. "If I was a woman 800-meter runner right now,
I'd be looking to change careers. You can't beat this advantage. It's too
But Alice Dreger, a historian of medicine and science who
has written about Semenya, poses a question with regard to the testosterone
regulations and what the IAAF is trying to achieve with its proposed limits:
"The data they have indicates it causes the athlete's
performance to drop precipitously, basically eliminating them from play,"
Dreger said. "So what does it really mean to say 'you can compete if you
get these interventions,' if the interventions mean you can't really compete
Semenya, often media-shy, smiled and spoke easily with
reporters at the nationals, saying she was starting to enjoy the sport again.
"I haven't had fun, you know, in a while," she
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