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  • Shreya Shukla

The Curious Case of Caster Semenya: Sports and Sex Testing

During adolescence, most people ask themselves if they are feminine or masculine enough, trying to fit into a binary and finding a place where they belong. Luckily, fitting into this binary (which we have come to realise is more of a spectrum), ideally speaking, is not that massive a deciding factor of whether we have a career or not and do not make international headlines. Caster Semenya is not, in more ways than one, “most people” and has been subjected to insensitive reporting, comments and accusations.

Ever since young Semenya gained international recognition for her victory at the world championships in 2009, questions have been raised about her sex. Her case sparked discussion on the meaning of the words ‘gender’ and ‘sex’, which many use interchangeably. Simultaneously, the former refers to the role an individual takes up in society; the latter implies one’s chromosomal, genetic, hormonal and physical differences. Assigned female at birth, Semenya is a cisgender woman who has naturally elevated levels of testosterone.

In this article, we shall be looking at Caster Semenya’s case of sex testing, testosterone, and special scrutiny of female bodies in sports from the lens of gender, human rights and ethics.

How do you decide whether an individual’s differences are a boon or a bane?

Dutee Chand celebrates after her second place in the women’s 100m final at the Asian Games in 2018. Source: Bernat Armangué/AP

While Michael Phelps’ genetic differences ranging from incredible wingspan, joint hyperextension, long and powerful torso and his scientifically proven ability to produce less than half of the lactic acid of his rivals, which causes fatigue and slows muscle contraction, is widely celebrated, Semenya and many female athletes, like Dutee Chand, naturally producing more testosterone, a hormone produced by both males and females albeit in smaller quantities by the latter, are subjected to strict regulation and even penalised.

Semenya is of a similar opinion, a statement issued by her legal team said she believes “she and other women affected by the regulations should be permitted to compete in the female category without discrimination” and that they should be “celebrated for their natural talents as are all other athletes with genetic variations”.

Ethics, ‘Necessary’ Discrimination and Athletics

Ewa Klobukowska

During the Cold War (finds a mention everywhere- from politics to sexes) in 1966, the USA believed that the USSR was altering their female athletes’ bodies to gain some advantage in competitions. For the same reason, the gender test was introduced.

To pass that test, doctors and experts had to check the athletes’ genitals, among other things, in what was called a “nude parade”. Ewa Klobukowska passed that test and qualified as female but failed to pass the “sex chromatin test” in 1967. Klobukowska was the first athlete in history to fail that test and was subsequently banned from competing in professional sports. Medical publications reported that Klobukowska is a genetic mosaic of XX/XXY. She was considered a hermaphrodite due to a chromosome found to be different from normal female’s chromosomes. In 1969, IAAF removed her world record from the books, and she was banished from the field of sports, unbeknownst to how her body was used as a political playground.

Today, most testing has been discontinued unless someone “challenges” a female athlete’s sex, which may influence how one judges a female athlete’s appearance and race.

In 2014, the Sports Authority of India diagnosed Dutee Chand as hyperandrogenic and disqualified her from the competition. Chand challenged that disqualification in the Court of Arbitration for Sport, where it was ruled the IAAF had “insufficient evidence” to enforce its policy. In an interview, Chand said, “These four years have been extremely tough for me. The negativity, fear of my career ending prematurely, insensitive comments about my body, I have faced them all. I am extremely relieved that I can run fearlessly again, knowing that now my battle exists only on the track and not off it”.

The decision gave the organisation two years to find evidence that associated athletic advantage in performance with naturally high testosterone levels. If not, the policy would be nullified. Researchers affiliated with the IAAF published a study that claimed women with high testosterone performed as much as 3% better than those with lower testosterone in certain events. Unperturbed by the study’s exposed methodological flaws, World Athletics (formerly known as IAAF) went ahead with its regulations. The Court of Arbitration for Sport’s panel agreed that the regulations are “discriminatory” but “necessary” to preserve “the integrity of female athletics.” The regulations are all the more discriminatory as they “do not impose any equivalent restrictions on male athletes.”

The public reaction to this decision was mostly negative. The new regulations will require Semenya to undergo medical treatment to lower her natural testosterone levels on which World Medical Association’s former President Dr Leonid Eidelman and WMA Chair Dr Frank Ulrich Montgomery said, “A medical treatment (with a few legal exceptions, which do not apply here) is only justified when there is a medical need. The mere existence of an intersex condition, without the person indicating suffering and expressing the desire for adequate treatment, does not constitute a medical indication”. Furthermore, it normalises the regulation of women’s hormone production and diminishes the possible side effects, such as nausea, depressions and weight gain. As an OHCHR report maintains that the “implementation of female eligibility regulations denies athletes with variations in sex characteristics an equal right to participate in sports and violates the right to non-discrimination more broadly”.

Even if there is an athletic advantage of 3%, how is it different from other genetic and socio-economic benefits in sports like those who have better access to quality training and nutrition, taller than average basketball players and swimmers with size 14 feet? Why are female athletes made to undergo special scrutiny, especially those with certain intersex variations or those with Differences in Sex Development (DSD)?

Running against Differences

From Ewa Klobukowska to Caster Semenya, we have surely run a long distance, but we have a long way to go. Biological ‘advantages’ and differences in sports are complex to define. One may qualify as a female athlete according to one criterion but fail when other characteristics are taken into account.

Irrespective of their differences, what we can agree on is the devotion elite athletes have toward their sport, dedicating their whole lives to perfecting their game by confining to these rules set by different organisations, sometimes arbitrary, which make the game all the more thrilling to watch but it is these rules that need the strictest scrutiny in a fair game, not athletes’ bodies.

By Shreya Shukla


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