Caster Semenya of South Africa leads the pack ahead of Noele Yarigo of Benin in the Women's 800 metres during the IAAF Diamond League event at the Khalifa International Stadium in May 2019 in Doha, Qatar.

Caster Semenya of South Africa leads the pack ahead of Noele Yarigo of Benin in the Women's 800 metres during the IAAF Diamond League event at the Khalifa International Stadium in May 2019 in Doha, Qatar.

Last month, the Court of Arbitration (CAS) ruled that Caster Semenya — a South African middle-distance runner with elevated testosterone levels — cannot compete as a woman at the elite level unless she suppresses her testosterone production.

Semenya has since appealed the ruling. In a statement when she filed her appeal, she said, “I am a woman and I am a world-class athlete. The IAAF will not drug me or stop me from being who I am.”

The case illuminates the complex marriage of gender, biology and sports arbitration.

Some say testosterone is the primary driver of athletic performance. Some don’t. Some say these regulations are the only way women can succeed in athletics. Some say it’s a lot more complicated than that.

Madeleine Pape, one of Semenya’s former competitors, has been reflecting on her own views about this since 2009, the year Semenya’s body came under scrutiny when the two competed in the women’s 800m at the IAAF World Championships in Berlin.

At the time, Pape felt Semenya’s biology gave her an unfair advantage on the track. Many other competitors in the event saw it that way, too. Now, years later and after beginning her career in sociology, Pape has changed her opinion about the case, and about the way sports’ governing bodies should address sex and gender. Here‘s what she wrote for The Guardian:

As a sociologist, I have now spent several years immersed in this issue, interviewing elite track-and-field stakeholders from around the world including athletes, coaches, officials, managers, team staff and media personnel. In their accounts I have seen so many echoes of my own experience in Berlin: an astounding lack of information, an absence of alternative viewpoints, a fear of the unknown, weak leadership from national and international governing bodies, and a stubborn refusal to dig a little deeper and reflect critically on where their views come from and what biases might be underlying them. The path of least resistance is to turn away from information and perspectives that might undermine one’s investment in the simplistic notion that sex is binary and testosterone is unfair (at least in women).

After Wednesday’s decision, the IAAF finds itself at a crossroads. Given the Cas has ruled in its favour, it could simply breathe a sigh of relief and forge doggedly ahead with a regulatory approach that has plunged the sport into a quandary and which, over 70 years, has consistently proved scientifically and ethically indefensible. This will prove to be the losing side of history: the pressures on the sport to change have intensified in recent years, and will surely not relent with this decision.

Alternatively, the IAAF could consider the road it has not yet travelled: engage in educational efforts aimed at promoting informed discussion, allaying fears of the unknown and promoting understanding as a viable alternative to exclusion. In other words, the IAAF could take the lead in creating a sporting environment in which it becomes possible to truly recognise women with high testosterone as the “humans, daughters, and sisters” that our president, Seb Coe, claims them to be at the same time as he denies their right to participate.

Who — and what — should dictate what’s fair in the world of sports?

Show produced by Kathryn Fink. Text by Kathryn Fink.

Guests

  • Madeleine Pape Former Olympic runner; competed against Caster Semenya in 2009 at the IAAF World Championships in Berlin; Ph.D. candidate in sociology, University of Wisconsin-Madison; @Madeleine_Pape
  • Dr. Myron Genel Pediatric endocrinologist; professor emeritus of pediatrics, Yale University; consultant, International Olympic Committee's Medical Commission
  • Doriane Coleman Professor of law, Duke University; former 800-meter runner; legal witness, IAAF
  • Dr. Michael Joyner Professor of anesthesiology, Mayo Clinic Rochester; Trustee, American College of Sports Medicine; @DrMJoyner

Glossary

  • CAS: Court of Arbitration for Sport, based in Lausanne, Switzerland
  • IAAFInternational Association of Athletics Federations; the international governing body for track and field 
  • DSDDisorders of Sex Development / Difference of Sex Development; medical conditions involving the reproductive system; “congenital conditions in which development of chromosomal, gonadal, or anatomical sex is atypical.” 
  • Hyperandrogenism: high natural levels of testosterone in women 

 

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