Caster Semenya's victory has further opened the floodgates of public opinion, to which she has responded:
"it's all about loving one another… It's not about looking at people [and] how they look, how they speak, how they run… I think the advice to everybody is to go out and have fun."
We are lucky to have one hell of a woman leading middle distance running into the next Olympic cycle.
In the lead-up to the Games, Semenya’s world-leading form inspired panic and even speculation that the end of women’s sport is nigh. One critic even claimed that Semenya’s inclusion threatened “the fabric of women’s sport” as we currently know it. Maybe that critic is onto something, because the prospect of Caster Semenya changing the fabric of women’s sport – for the better – is a pretty exciting one.
It’s a fabric characterized by unequal pay, fewer opportunities, nameless Olympic superstars described only in terms of their race or marital status, gold medals that simply don’t count as much as men’s, discriminatory gender eligibility regulations that seek to limit what a woman can be and achieve, and baseless rumours of “male advantage” that target women of colour and smack of western imperialism.
Misogyny dies hard. And so too does our stubborn belief that women need protection if they are going to keep or advance their place in the wide world of sport.
So we find ourselves at a crossroads: Semenya’s Olympic gold medal safely in hand, speculation continuing over her right to compete, but all of us agree on one thing: this witch hunt can never happen again. So where do we go from here?
People have asked me if the alternative to discriminatory gender verification policies is to do away with gender in sport altogether. But gender in and of itself is not the problem: it’s how we have defined and policed it to date.
Scrap Gender Verification
If someone is born a woman, raised a woman, identifies as a woman, and is recognized as a woman, then why are we wasting our time and energy on verifying their gender to the satisfaction of scientists and doctors?
“Gender verification” refers to regulations that sports governing bodies put in place to determine which female athletes, among those born and raised as women, can actually compete without restriction.
The most recent of these, the Hyperandrogenism Regulations of the IAAF and IOC, were added to the scrap heap of failed gender verification policies by the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) last year, because there is insufficient evidence to support the claim that naturally occurring testosterone is so critical to athletic ability that it enables women with higher than “normal” levels to perform at the same standard as men.
For the record, Caster Semenya’s personal best time wouldn’t have qualified her for the men’s 800m at the South African National Championships, let alone the Olympic Games.
The Hyperandrogenism Regulations are supposed to “level the playing field” for women. But since there is no such thing as a level playing field (athletes constantly look for ways to increase their own competitive advantage), the regulations do nothing to advance women’s sport.
They simply serve as a form of social control, putting a glass ceiling on what women are allowed to achieve, stigmatizing athletes whose biology reflects the natural variation among women, and casting suspicion upon successful athletes who depart from the Western ideal of heteronormative femininity. The alternative is simple: born a woman, compete as a woman. No restriction.
IAAF President Sebastian Coe recently announced that they were gathering evidence to take to the CAS in an attempt to have the Hyperandrogenism Regulations reinstated.
He made this announcement on the eve of Dutee Chand’s Olympic debut, the Indian sprinter who courageously spoke out against male-dominated sports governing bodies and successfully fought for the right to compete without making changes to her body.
Perhaps Coe sought intentionally to unsettle Chand and Semenya and other female athletes under scrutiny, perhaps not. But it was a lost opportunity for the IAAF to “go high when others go low” by educating the athletics community about the complexities of sex difference and athletic performance.
Instead the IAAF (together with the IOC) is using all of its privilege – money, resources, networks – to find ways to rob us of the brilliance that is Dutee Chand the Olympian. I wonder if the IAAF and IOC are interested in levelling the playing field for Chand, their opponent in this appeal, who doesn’t have the means to employ an international team of scientists and medical practitioners to continue advancing the competing evidence. Talk about a game that is rigged from the start.
We don’t need more of these private meetings of the IAAF-IOC inner scientific sanctum. We need investment in education to help the athletics world understand and accept the natural diversity among women (and men!).
Make Gender Identity the Rule
Women are considered by the IAAF to be a “protected category” in sport. Theoretically this was intended to mean protection from male imposters. In practice it has meant protection from two groups of women: those perceived to have masculine characteristics and those who have undergone a gender transition.
There is a meaningful difference between being recognized as a woman from birth and being recognized only after a gender transition. But while the two groups of women have sometimes been erroneously conflated, it is also clear that they provoke similar anxieties.
Let’s be clear: transgender women are not male imposters: they are women! Claims that they will take over women’s sport are baseless and come from people who are either not taking gender transitions seriously or are telling the IAAF-IOC what they want to hear.
The IOC recently relaxed their policy for the participation of transgender women, removing the requirement of surgery but retaining the demand that such women lower their testosterone below the so-called male range. The Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sport (their national anti-doping agency) argues that sports governing bodies should not require athletes to take medication to lower their natural testosterone production. It can have unnecessary health side effects and is inaccessible to some transgender women, such as low-income earners, thus raising equity concerns.
To complete the overhaul of unnecessary gender regulation in sport, we need to align ourselves with contemporary shifts in womanhood by making gender identity the basis for sorting athletes into gender categories. When people reject this idea, no matter how politically correct they attempt to be in the process, they show their true colours: they aren’t fully prepared to recognize women with intersex characteristics and transgender women as “real” women.
There are athletes, fans and coaches who believe that maintaining rigid definitions of gender is the only way to avoid dropping a nuclear bomb on everything women athletes have fought to achieve to date. They feel entitled to uphold a narrow and ideologically conservative concept of womanhood, one that relies on and advances a gender binary that simply does not exist in our biological and social reality. But Caster Semenya is not the end of women’s sport. She can be the beginning of a future that is a whole lot brighter than the present.
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. Read how she became a supporter of Caster Semenya here.