Last week, the South African runner Caster Semenya lost an appeal at the Court of Arbitration for Sport against a ruling that forces her to lower levels of the hormone testosterone if she wants to compete at the forthcoming Olympics and other international track events.
The two-time defending 800 metre Olympic champion’s supporters interpreted the ruling as an expression of misogyny and racism in athletics, where governing bodies tend to be composed of white males even when the discipline itself is dominated by non-whites, frequently Africans like Semenya or people of African extraction.
This interpretation ignores the fact that the complainants against Semenya have all been women. The South African middle-distance runner is said to possess the XY chromosomes typical of males, which a number of her competitors view as providing her an unfair advantage.
The entire edifice of sex testing, in fact, is built around the idea of giving women a fair shot. Rafael Nadal doesn’t care a bit if the person across the court is a man or an intersex individual, and Virat Kohli would have no objection to the opposition fielding female bowlers instead of males.
The Court of Arbitration for Sport ruling is restricted to athletes like Semenya with a specific condition known as 46 XY DSD, where DSD stands for Differences of Sex Development, something commentators in publications such as The Washington Post and The New York Times downplayed or misrepresented.
While the The New York Times buried the lede, The Washington Post incorrectly reported that, “an estimated 5 to 10 percent of women share” Semenya’s condition. The link provided as evidence for this claim was a study of hyperandrogenism in women in general, a category that the Court of Arbitration for Sport ruling does not cover.
The testosterone debate
The origins of the Semenya’s hyperandrogenism case began with the Indian sprinter Dutee Chand, who went through a terrible ordeal at the hands of the Athletics Federation of India. Semenya has faced more than her share of humiliation, but can at least claim the unstinting support of her home federation and the South African public.
After Chand was banned, she appealed to the Court of Arbitration for Sport, which cleared her to race pending proof that naturally elevated testosterone levels improve the performance of female athletes. It is unclear how the new ruling will affect her, since there is no word on whether she fits the 46 XY DSD category.
The text of the Court of Arbitration for Sport verdict highlights its own provisionality while pointing out that the testosterone debate is far from settled. Part of the problem is that a large percentage of elite athletes take prohibited hormonal supplements, and the doping messes with their natural hormones, in the process skewing studies seeking to correlate testosterone and athletic performance.
It seems fair, however, to desire to even the playing field somewhat, and incorrect to equate, as many of Semenya’s defenders have done, the advantage conferred by possessing a Y chromosome with favourable physical features that allowed individuals like Michael Phelps to be world beaters.
Differences exist, and are at the core of competition of all sorts. But it is universally acknowledged that women would be ill-served if all competitions were open to everybody, and therefore it becomes important to preserve the category by enunciating reasonable restrictions.
Those restrictions contain a degree of arbitrariness (why this particular level of testosterone, why these particular disciplines, as so on), but such arbitrariness is present in every regulation. To give one example, very little physical or mental alteration is detectable in individuals between the time they are 17 years and 364 days of age and their 18th birthday, yet that tiny step marks a giant leap in their legal status.
Physical advantage of male body
The Semenya case is but a preview of a flood of legislation to come, which will relate not to intersex competitors but transgender athletes. As the “T” in LGBT has become the most vocal group among queer activists, universities and sports bodies have responded by attempting to be more inclusive of individuals whose assigned gender does not match their self-perception.
In some US schools, students who possess male bodies but identify as females are allowed to compete without restriction with girls. This has become an issue in Connecticut, after Terry Miller, assigned male at birth but identifying as female, won the 100-metre and 200-metre dash in the state championship. Since valuable college scholarships depend on rankings in such events, a number of girls and their parents complained. The question is: how will this play out in the adult arena, as more trans women feel able to come out?
Unlike school sports, senior competition require male-to-female trans athletes to have been on Hormone Replacement Therapy for two years before being allowed to compete. The earlier requirement of gender reassignment surgery was erased in 2016. Female-to-male athletes can, of course, compete without restriction.
A number of sportswomen, however, believe that Hormone Replacement Therapy alone is not enough to balance the natural physical advantage males possess. The all-time great tennis player and LGBT rights activist Martina Navratilova swam into the controversy earlier this year after she suggested men might go through Hormone Replacement Therapy as a tactical measure to make a living in female sport.
The case of Bruce Jenner
Even if we discount the cheaters argument, greater openness to trans individuals is bound to spur more biological males to make public their female gender, inevitably leading to a surge in trans sportspersons.
To get an idea of how divisive this may get, consider the most accomplished transgender athlete of them all, Bruce Jenner. Jenner won the decathlon gold at the 1976 Olympics, when that event was reaching the peak of its popularity. He was a supreme example of male athleticism, 6 feet 2 inches tall, muscular enough for throwing the shot and javelin and agile enough for the running and jumping. All the while, in his mind, he was a she. She finally began transitioning years later, paused because she fell in love, and had two children with Kris Jenner before finally completing her change from Bruce to Caitlyn.
Bruce Jenner ran the 100 metres in the 1976 decathlon in 10.94 seconds. That would have fetched him only 7th place in the last Olympic women’s meet. He achieved 7.22 in the long jump, enough to win gold at that event in 2016. His high jump measured 2.03 metres, enough, again, for a gold medal. His 400 metres time of 47.60 would still stand as a world record, unbeaten even by the super-doped East Germans of the 1970s and 1980s. I could go on, but events like the shot put aren’t strictly comparable because men use a heavier shot.
Had the world been as liberal in 1976 as it is today, Bruce Jenner might have started on Hormone Replacement Therapy much earlier than he did. How much difference would that have made to his timings, considering his imposing physical frame would have stayed substantially the same? It’s an open question, unanswerable without firm evidence, but if I was to guess, I’d say the Caitlyn Jenner of 1976 would have a few world records and a decent gold medal haul to her credit.
Inclusiveness vs exclusion
Taking nothing away from the brave choices Jenner made, just as one takes nothing away from Caster Semenya’s years of effort in a hostile environment, would that have been fair to competitors who were born biologically female?
Inclusiveness is a desirable goal, but what if inclusion brings a form of exclusion with it? The tone of my writing must indicate my wariness about trans athletes competing in women’s events, but we are only at the start of a narrative that will unfold in interesting ways in the near future, as more evidence emerges of the effects of Hormone Replacement Therapy and testosterone suppression on intersex and trans athletes.