Katie Ledecky is crushing records, so why are we still worried about Caster Semenya?
I've been thinking about South African runner Caster Semenya, and about whether I should write about her, for two months.
The topic has been ping-ponging inside my mind: write, don't write, write, don't write.
A column about Semenya would seem like piling on. Regardless of the content, the piece would be just another headline, just another brick in the imaginary wall that has been slowly closing around her.
But then, not writing about her would feel like giving up -- surrendering the space to certain voices, who right now don't seem to understand that their conversation, as elevated as their language might be, is really nothing more than a witch hunt in disguise.
What am I talking about, exactly?
Since May, a steady stream of articles -- see here, here and here -- have highlighted the supposed hysteria that will descend on the 2016 Olympics if Semenya does what many expect her to do: win gold in the 800 meters. You might remember Semenya as the protagonist of one of the most explosive sports stories of 2009, when she was flagged for sex-verification testing, the results of which were subsequently leaked. In the weeks after, we found out that, to comply with track and field's regulation on what constitutes a "female athlete," the then-18-year-old needed to undergo some sort of treatment, the specific details of which went unpublished.
So here's the newest twist, the one that has sparked the latest hand-wringing. A year ago, the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) ruled that using natural testosterone levels as the measure for sex verification, which most sports were doing, is unjustified. The CAS told the governing bodies of sport, including the IAAF and International Olympic Committee, that they had two years to prove that increased levels of natural testosterone (known as hyperandrogenism) provided female athletes with a demonstrable advantage.
The ruling meant that Semenya could immediately stop taking testosterone-suppression drugs. Of course, nobody knows if she actually did stop, or if she ever started in the first place -- only that the highest court in sports said no cis-gender woman could or should be forced to take them. In other words: Testosterone levels were not a legitimate barometer for deciding which female athletes were "female enough" to compete.
And yet, in the buildup to these Olympics, a few people have once again focused the microscope on Semenya, who won the silver medal at the 2012 London Olympics and who has been burning up the track lately. In July, she ran the 800 in 1 minute, 55 seconds -- the fastest time in the world this year and two seconds off the world record.
What has happened since the CAS ruling is actually embarrassingly simple. Since the highest sports court in the world decided that Semenya is free to compete without restrictions, certain people have moved the conversation to another venue -- the court of public opinion.
Guess which one is more vicious.
This "conversation" is supposedly about fairness and protection. Or, rather, protecting female athletes whose appearance reflects society's standard of femininity. Ross Tucker, a South African professor of exercise physiology who has banged the drum the loudest (and who did not respond to multiple email requests for an interview), offered this quote to the Guardian: "If Semenya can eventually run 1:51 she is better than [Usain] Bolt comparatively. But Bolt doesn't compete in a protected category for people with fast-twitch muscle fibers. He isn't subjected to the same classification issues as Semenya is by virtue of the fact we're trying to protect women."
As Stanford bioethicist Katrina Karkazis has said: Protect women from what? Protect women from ... other women? Or protect more traditionally feminine looking women from women whose appearance is more masculine? Because the reality is, until you do invasive sex testing on every single female athlete in international competition -- and to be clear, I am absolutely not advocating for this -- we have no clue what's happening inside the body of each athlete.
We have no idea on what point of the biological sex continuum each female athlete resides, and who might have what advantages. And without that knowledge, the people currently ringing the alarm bells on Semenya are actually engaging in discriminatory behavior. They are singling out Semenya because her physique was deemed "too masculine," which led to her being flagged for sex verification testing, which means she is now one of the few female athletes whose sex test results have been made public.
We have no idea on what point of the biological sex continuum each female athlete resides, and who might have what advantages. And without that knowledge, the people currently ringing the alarm bells on Semenya are actually engaging in discriminatory behavior.Kate Fagan
Hundreds of other female athletes might possess the same hormones as Semenya, but because their physiques are deemed more "feminine," they'll never be flagged for testing, and so we'll never know.
The CAS verdict was, in hindsight, almost predictable. Over the course of sporting history, every previous "sex testing" measure has been deemed flawed: naked parades, physical examinations, chromosome testing -- all are now seen as archaic, outdated and inadequate.
In fact, an adequate test does not exist -- of course it doesn't. Biological sex exists along a continuum of unknown length, not on a binary. And finding the midpoint of a line of unknown length is impossible. Perhaps that's hard for some to comprehend, considering that, for thousands of years, we've had just two options (blue or pink, suit or dress) for how to outwardly express a thousand variations of biological sex.
No wonder so many people think there are only two sexes.
And no doubt this appears to be a tricky issue. Truth is, we've separated sports into two categories, so we must police those categories, right? If women are a protected class in sports, then we must institute measures -- even if those measures are imprecise or flawed -- to protect them.
Stick with me.
The articles I linked to above make it seem as though the very future of women's sports is at stake -- as though a Semenya victory in the Olympics would shatter women's sports into a million pieces because the categorization would be obliterated.
But consider this: Until 1966, international competitions were still using physical examinations to determine which female athletes could and could not compete. No complicated science. No chromosome tests. No testing of hormones. No scans of internal organs. Just a simple glance at a naked body to ensure that no men were masquerading as women. So it's possible that hundreds of women (and some men, for that matter) have competed, unbeknownst to anyone, with myriad different internal makeups.
And have women's sports imploded?
No. So why would it now?
Kendra Harrison just broke a 28-year-old world record in the women's 100-meter hurdles; Katie Ledecky is about to rewrite the Olympic record books in swimming. And no one is concerned.
Women's sports have carried on nicely for decades, with female athletes of varying backgrounds and advantages, genetic or otherwise, running and swimming against one another, largely without incident. And the courts have said sex testing, as it currently exists, is flawed and unfair.
So ask yourself this: Exactly why is Caster Semenya still on trial?