Jessica Luther column: Rio Olympics, where what is a woman is at stake

This week in Rio, Caster Semenya, a runner from South Africa, will most likely race her way to a gold medal in the 800m. She has posted the fastest time this year in the event, a 1:55:33, nearly a second faster than the next quickest runner but still a good two seconds off the world record set by Jarmila Kratochvílová in 1983. In the race earlier this year where she clocked that time, Semenya stayed with the other runners until the the final straightaway, where her strides ate up the track quickly and she easily pulled away for the win. Like Usain Bolt after his electrifying runs, Semenya finished and celebrated, smiling and waving to the crowd. She’s a smart, strong racer and so this 2012 Olympic silver medalist will likely upgrade her medal this week.

Yet, instead of having a collective cultural moment of awe at getting to witness such an athletic feat by such a gifted athlete, the world has instead chosen to question Semenya’s legitimacy at appearing in the race. She has, apparently, the single natural genetic advantage that people feel should disqualify an athlete from ever competing again: she is a woman and her body naturally makes more testosterone than other women’s bodies. For this, she has been intensely scrutinized since she won gold at the World Championships in 2009 and other competitors questioned her ability and her appearance.

You see, Semenya does not fit the traditional western ideas of femininity because she is a black woman with broad shoulders, a small chest, and a square jaw (note: there are very old ideas that sprung up in the earliest years of European imperialism about which female bodies were feminine and beautiful, and those bodies were almost exclusively white). Like Serena Williams or Brittney Griner, Semenya faces endless transphobic and sexist remarks because of her looks. Unlike them, Semenya competes in track, overseen by the International Association of Athletic Federations (IAAF).

Ukraine's Nataliia Lupu (L) and South Africa's Caster Semenya compete in a semi-final heat of the women's 800 metres athletics event at the 2015 IAAF World Championships at the 'Bird's Nest' National Stadium in Beijing on August 27, 2015. OLIVIER MORIN/AFP/Getty Images
Ukraine’s Nataliia Lupu (L) and South Africa’s Caster Semenya compete in a semi-final heat of the women’s 800 metres athletics event at the 2015 IAAF World Championships at the ‘Bird’s Nest’ National Stadium in Beijing on August 27, 2015. OLIVIER MORIN/AFP/Getty Images

In 2009, the IAAF, in response to questions like, “Is Semenya a man?,” decided to test her testosterone level, under the false idea that the natural level of testosterone in one’s body can alone determine a person’s sex or athletic advantage. Semenya was cleared by the IAAF in 2010 and allowed to compete. That has not stopped any of the terrible scrutiny about her.

In 2015, the Court of Arbitration of Sport (CAS) found in the case of another sprinter, Dutee Chand of India, that there was no scientific evidence to back up the IAAF’s claims about female athletes whose bodies produce higher levels of testosterone. The IAAF now has until next year to present their case again, this time with the required evidence (a process that everyone should question, as it requires this organization to look for a specific scientific result that is favorable to their biased ideas about gender and sex. That is, to say the least, a questionable way to approach any scientific endeavor).

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) also had to suspend their rules about high-T athletes under the CAS ruling. As Janice Forsyth wrote, this is a very good thing because, “Women who do not fit their policy can either undergo medical intervention to force their biology into that shoebox, or quit. Several young healthy women underwent a series of invasive procedures, including clitoral amputation, to remain in competitive sport.”

In a recent New York Times piece titled, “The Humiliating Practice of Sex-Testing Female Athletes,” Ruth Padawer says that in 2014, at the age of 18, Chand had to undergo the IAAF’s sex testing, which included a gynecological exam. “To evaluate the effects of high testosterone,” Padawer writes, “the international athletic association’s protocol involves measuring and palpating the clitoris, vagina and labia, as well as evaluating breast size and pubic hair scored on an illustrated five-grade scale.”

How is this in any way okay? How can we care more about some old racist, transphobic, and sexist imperial idea of “woman” than about the lives of these actual women? As Katie Matlack pointed out in a piece last week on the gender policing of female athletes, all of this “has a costly human toll that no one should ever be made to suffer in the name of sports (which, remember, are completely made up).”

Kate Fagan, at ESPNW, compared how we react to Semenya’s athleticism versus how we react to swimmer Katie Ledecky’s and asked, “Exactly why is Caster Semenya still on trial?” Putting these two athletes side-by-side is very effective. Ledecky is a 19-year-old white woman from the USA who dominated in the pool in Rio. She won gold in the 200m, 400m, and 800m freestyle races. In the 400m and 800m, she re-set the world record, for which she was the previous holder. She probably would have brought home the gold in the 1500m, if women raced that distance in the Olympics, because she holds that world record, too. She is incredibly dominant. We all cheered her on and rightly so.

[More from Excelle: Katie Ledecky is in a league of her own]

Compare this to a Runner’s World article about the “most controversial” race in Rio, the 800m on track. In it, in defense of his questioning of Semenya’s participation in the women’s race, Amby Burfoot wrote, “In April, presumably after six or seven months without female hormones, Semenya won the 400, 800, and 1500 at the South African National Championships, all within a four-hour period.” He had to write “presumably” because he does not know anything about Semenya outside of his own speculation. Semenya’s dominance is not worth celebrating in the same way we did for Ledecky. The better Semenya does, in fact, the more it leads people to question if she should even be allowed to participate. That is a mean catch 22 that uses her greatness to disqualify her.

South Africa's Caster Semenya competes to win the women's 800m event during the ISTAF (Internationales Stadionfest) IAAF World Challenge on August 22, 2010 in Berlin. Caster Semenya of South Africa won the competition ahead of Kenya's Cherono Koech and Italy's Elisa Cusma Piccione. JOHANNES EISELE/AFP/Getty Images
South Africa’s Caster Semenya competes to win the women’s 800m event during the ISTAF (Internationales Stadionfest) IAAF World Challenge on August 22, 2010 in Berlin. Caster Semenya of South Africa won the competition ahead of Kenya’s Cherono Koech and Italy’s Elisa Cusma Piccione. JOHANNES EISELE/AFP/Getty Images

This leaves me with so many questions. Katrina Karkazis, a senior research scholar at the Center for Biomedical Ethics at Stanford University whose work on this topic is formidable, asks some of them for me: “What are they protecting women’s sport from? Women breaking women’s records?” And why are we only concerned when certain female athletes break those records? The fear of someone lying about their gender in order to compete in the “easier” category of elite women athletes is based on nothing as there are no documented cases. What is, then, the obsession about?

There are some who think keeping Semenya off the race track is somehow “fair.” Women were barred from competing for a long time and, once able to, in order to create some space for women in sport, we latched onto the arbitrary categories of “men” and “women.”

Athletes are forced into one of these and then we police the protected of the two classes, the “women.” And despite being a protected class, women receive less resources and less support. They are told to simply be happy they get to compete at all. This history of exclusion and the present day struggle to find and hold onto financial resources that allow them to be athletes means that women are as deeply invested in determining who should be allowed into their category.

It was Semenya’s fellow competitors who questioned her in 2009. Madeleine Pape, who ran against Semenya in that race, has recently written about why she participated in the mob that went after Semenya then and why, by 2015, Pape testified on Chand’s behalf at the CAS hearing. Last month, it was British marathoner Paula Radcliffe advocating for barring women with high testosterone from competition, fear mongering about how their inclusion erases the fairness of sport.

But everything about women’s sport is unfair, including that it has to exist at all. It’s also deeply unfair that only non cis men are ever tested to determine if they fit into the correct category (I highly recommend you read this piece by Janice Forsyth that talks about sex testing for trans women and the violence done to them in the name of regulating sport). It is unfair, too, that this single genetic marker–a naturally higher testosterone level–has been painted as a problem to be eradicated instead of yet another thing that might make someone an Olympic-caliber athlete. As Maggie Wiggin tweeted, “Biological outliers do not threaten sports, biological outliers ARE sports.” Why then do we only test for this one? Why then do we shame people for having it?

DOHA, QATAR - MAY 06: Caster Semenya of South Africa celebrates after victory in the Women's 800 metres final during the Doha IAAF Diamond League 2016 meeting at Qatar Sports Club on May 6, 2016 in Doha, Qatar. (Photo by Warren Little/Getty Images)
DOHA, QATAR – MAY 06: Caster Semenya of South Africa celebrates after victory in the Women’s 800 metres final during the Doha IAAF Diamond League 2016 meeting at Qatar Sports Club on May 6, 2016 in Doha, Qatar. (Photo by Warren Little/Getty Images)

There is, in the end, no simple way to categorize people, including someone’s gender and sex. Yet sport, in particular, acts as if it is. As Andrew wrote at the Victory Press, “When we talk about gender in sport, those discussions are in cisnormative terms. When we talk about gender in sport, those discussions occur in purely binary terms. We never talk about how sometimes our critiques of sexism perpetuate cissexism. We never mention how Olympic rules leave no room for non-binary and genderfluid athletes.” It against this comfortable cisnormative, binary, non-fluid definition of gender that stories like Semenya’s and Chand’s push.

Instead of going after the very infrastructure and culture of sport that forces anyone who competes under the category of “women” to throw elbows at fellow competitors in their hunt for resources and support, we attack individuals whose bodies expose the very arbitrary nature of the entire set up and so remind us that we made arbitrary categories to begin with because cis men have been historically invested in keeping all non-cis men out.

There are two questions we need to be asking ourselves as Semenya gets ready to race in Rio this week.

Do we care about human rights or are we concerned more about fairness in a sport that is fundamentally unfair? Do we care about ending violence against women or are we more invested in maintaining the random but rigid categories of gender that create this violence?

Jump To Comments
  • JessicaSM

    Fascinating! Great points. I hope people read this and calm down with their gender panic.

  • anonymous

    You’ve completely ignored the biology of the issue. Caster Semenya’s gender is a woman, but her sex is intersex, not male or female. She has testes, not ovaries or a womb, indicating XY chromosomal makeup. It’s not exactly controversial to say that an individual with XY chromosomes should not compete against those who do not in the highest level of competition. An individual with 5-alpha reductase deficiency (the specific intersex condition she has has not been released, but this seems most likely based on my knowledge of intersex conditions) is much closer biologically to a male than a female besides the fact that she is lacking a specific enzyme which results in ambiguous genitalia and secondary sexual characteristics.

    If you think having a Y chromosome is an “arbitrary” line to draw than I really don’t know what to tell you