What makes somebody a woman, and an athlete a female? Sport, and Olympic sport in particular, appears to be considered justified in writing its own rules when it comes to defining the boundaries of gender categories for competition.
28 Jun 2017 - 11:06 AM  UPDATED 29 Jun 2017 - 10:30 AM

I was once a part of that vacuum: an elite athlete willing to stand by and even participate when mobs of people – athletes, fans, officials, media personnel – came after South African 800m runner Caster Semenya at the World Championships in 2009.

The spectacle we created was nothing short of a modern-day witch-hunt. We treated Semenya as a freak of nature, a hybrid creature to be feared, someone who might well have been considered a woman elsewhere but was not a legitimate female athlete in our circles. It was a dark period for me personally, given my poor performance representing Australia in the 800m, but it was a far darker period for the sport of athletics.

Fast-forward to 2015 and I was, perhaps in the eyes of some people, betraying my athletics tribe by testifying before the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) in support of Dutee Chand, an Indian sprinter, in her effort to overturn the Hyperandrogenism Regulations of the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) and International Olympic Committee (IOC).

These regulations specified a limit to the amount of naturally occurring testosterone allowed in the bodies of female athletes. They were the IAAF and IOC’s answer to 'the Semenya problem,' intended to ensure that never again would such a woman seize gold from fairer, more deserving competitors. The CAS ultimately decided to suspend the Regulations for a period of two years, allowing Chand to pursue her dream of becoming an Olympian without having to modify her body to fit within the limits of the so-called biological female.

I testified not in an attempt to be controversial, and certainly not to gain popularity, but because I believe it was the right thing to do – both factually and politically.

Ask yourself this: how do you know that testosterone is the key factor that distinguishes male from female bodies? Where did you learn this myth, and when – if ever – have you questioned it? Similarly, what makes you think that testosterone is the critical factor shaping athletic performance?

In my case, I had to commence a PhD in Sociology in the United States before I encountered such questions. Challenged by my academic peers to imagine a world where Semenya could compete freely, I felt disturbed. Threatened. Defensive. But the facts were inescapable: naturally occurring testosterone is but one of many biological and social factors shaping the performances of male and female athletes.

Athletes trust that sports governing bodies have long settled the question of whether testosterone produces sex and performance differences. The concept of testosterone carries enormous symbolic power in modern society and particularly in the world of sport. It has a mythology that we’ve come to perceive as indisputable fact. But most of us know only the simplified version of a complex biological entity that takes natural and synthetic forms and which affects individual bodies in inconsistent ways.

It has taken an enormous amount of work and money on the part of the IAAF and IOC to generate even modest scientific evidence that naturally occurring testosterone could serve as the basis for disqualifying certain female athletes. And as ruled by the CAS, the evidence was not nearly good enough. Thus history repeats itself: gender verification, whether it relies on genetics, DNA, hormones, or gonads, is destined to fail. And still the sport of athletics opts to be on the wrong side of history.

But this is not really a story about scientific experts sparring over the disputed role of testosterone in producing sex and performance differences. In fact I don’t think it’s about science at all.

Semenya is a black, queer, tomboy from South Africa, making her a marginal character in a sport that is predominantly straight, historically dominated by white Europeans, organised around strict gender segregation and objectification of women’s bodies, and where women are often fairly feminine in their self-presentation. I do not think these details are peripheral to the story, I think they are at the heart of it.

It begins with a double standard for men and women: we celebrate the exceptional performances of male athletes unconditionally, think Usain Bolt, David Rudisha, and Mo Farah. Only the taint of doping could quell the enthusiasm with which we put exceptional male athletes up on a pedestal.

By contrast, the celebration of female athletes comes with conditions, with which Semenya did not comply. Said the athletics tribe to their women, thou shalt be a fair champion, and here “fairness” has a double meaning: do not cheat, and be sufficiently feminine.

Black feminist thinkers have long reminded us that perceptions of femininity are not colourblind. Add to the colour of Semenya’s skin her queerness, her gender non-conformity, her athletic abilities, her African-ness, and many people can no longer see or accept Caster for the woman that she is.

Perhaps the worst part is that we – female athletes – police ourselves by policing Semenya and others who we presume to have intersex characteristics. We are scared to see in Semenya a champion worth celebrating. We are reluctant to permit a self-identified female athlete to go too far ahead, to reach too high, and to achieve something that history suggests is unattainable for many of us.

Of course many male athletes face this scenario with no option of pulling the gender card. Athletics is a deep international sport, arguably one of the deepest in the world. Some athletes have access to superior sports medicine, training facilities, nutrition, and sports science. But here is the hard truth: some athletes are simply better than others.

I am no longer comfortable with claiming that the world of sport should make its own rules when it comes to determining the gender of its competitors. No matter how you package the Hyperandrogenism Regulations, they constitute a form of discrimination, a double standard, a witch hunt that has no place in athletics and women’s sports more broadly.

A taste of the facts that undermine popular perceptions of testosterone

  • Some male athletes competing at the 2011 and 2013 World Championships had naturally occurring testosterone levels below the “normal” limit for men as defined by the IAAF (10nmol/L), and some even fell within the female range (below 3 nmol/L).
  • There are elite female athletes who are androgen-insensitive, meaning that their bodies are unable to benefit from the testosterone they produce. In other words, they are elite athletes with a functional testosterone level of zero.
  • The IAAF and the IOC (and some outspoken athletes and coaches) claim that women with “male” testosterone levels perform like men. We may never know the private details of Semenya’s testosterone levels, but we do know that she is significantly slower than our male counterparts. Her best time at the 2009 World Championships was around 10 seconds off the men’s qualifying standard and their eventual winning time.
  • At least 30 female athletes received “treatment” under the Hyperandrogenism Regulations to lower their testosterone levels. But there are not 30 Semenyas, which we should expect if testosterone was the critical factor determining athletic ability in female athletes. 

Madeleine Pape is a former 800m runner who represented Australia at the Beijing Olympic Games in 2008, World University Games in 2009, and World Championships in 2009. She is pursuing a PhD in Sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

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