Sports and Sexual Development

The Caster Semenya Problem

By Mason Hightower
On October 2, 2020

 Photo courtesy of the Telegraph

 South African runner Caster Semenya is a titan in the running world. In both the 2012 and 2016 Olympics, she placed first in the 800-meter race, her signature event. She completely outclasses her competitors. Although still running two full seconds below the world record for the event, she’s fallen under scrutiny for her testosterone levels. Caster Semenya has a genetic condition known as hyperandrogenism, which causes her body to produce extra androgens like testosterone. World Athletics passed regulations in 2018 that essentially tells female athletes with higher-than-natural testosterone levels, like Caster Semenya, that they’ll have to take hormone inhibitors in order to continue to compete in events they’ve been training for their whole lives.

 We’ve all played a sport at some point in our lives, whether it’s three kids kicking a soccer ball in the backyard or a college football team scoring touchdowns in AT&T Stadium. Imagine being stripped of that victory, no matter how small, because of the color of your hair, the size of your feet or something else natural about your body. That’s a reality Caster Semenya had to face. Even crazier than that, World Athletics has actually acknowledged that their regulations are discriminatory! They know! The World Medical Association has even advised doctors that this practice is against medical ethics and ignores human rights standards.

The Swedish Supreme Court heard an appeal on Tuesday, Sept. 8, by Caster Semenya to overturn a previous court ruling on the testosterone regulations in time for the Summer Olympics in Tokyo next year. The court denied her appeal, and she won’t be able to compete without taking medication to force her body to decrease its natural hormone levels. Semenya released a statement saying “I am very disappointed by this ruling, but refuse to let World Athletics drug me or stop me from being who I am.” 

The issue with this ruling is that it’s unethical. First of all, blatantly demanding that someone takes drugs to alter their physiology is an abuse of power and it’s founded in poorly thought-out science. Additionally, sex is not and has never been binary, so expecting every woman on the field to be equal is insane. Also, women with hyperandrogenism or similar characteristics aren’t as fast as men. It’s obvious that they aren’t men, so they deserve to compete with women. Finally, it’s discriminatory. Discrimination is faced by billions of people on the grounds of race, nationality, sex, gender, sexuality, income status, religion, hair, age, disability, pregnancy, and countless other reasons. It has to come to a stop. An organization like World Athletics has no place promoting discriminatory practices in a world headed for change.

This is a human rights issue framed as an issue of fairness. Is it unfair that American swimmer Michael Phelps produces barely half the lactic acid of other athletes? Is it unfair that Finnish skier Eero Mäntyranta’s body has a genetic mutation that boosts his red blood cell count by 25-50%, or is it a gift that allows the elite athletes to really be at the top of their game every time they compete? It’s a human rights issue that a woman with an advantage is a mutant and a man with an advantage is a god. 

World Athletics claims the rules “are not about challenging an individual’s gender identity, but rather about protecting fair competition for all female athletes,” but not all female athletes are being forced to take drugs. What are they protecting female athletes from? Other, better female athletes? Only one person can win the 800, and every other woman in the world is slower than the fastest woman in the world. That’s how athletics works. You don’t tear down the victor when she wins. You celebrate.

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