by Stu Lucy
Professional sport is possibly one of the most challenging and competitive ways to earn a living these days. With national fame and glory as rewards, many dream of representing their country on the international stage and bringing home a medal, earning their place in their country’s sporting history. Imagine then that you were one of the lucky few that made it to the top, that had that chance to take gold and did so, multiple times, earning a revered reputation in the field as the one to beat, then imagine you were told it could all be taken away because you were too much like the opposite sex. Where would you start?!
South African Mokgadi Caster Semenya has risen through the ranks of her national athletics team to become one of the most accomplished middle-distance runners in her field. After taking her first gold at the 2008 Bydgoszcz World Junior Championships, she has gone on to win medals in the World Championships, Commonwealth, African and Olympic Games, most recently at the Gold Coast games this year. With such a consistent history of sporting prowess, one would expect her to have become a national treasure, a leading female role model and celebrated as one of the great human beings of our time. The reality, however, is that since her initial victory a decade ago, controversy has shrouded her performance.
imagine you were told it could all be taken away because you were too much like the opposite sex.
After making dramatic improvements to her times in both the 800 and 1500m events, officials speculated that such gains could be indicative of drug use. Her appearance also came under fire; appearing to demonstrate the kind of physical features more associated with males, resulting in a request to undertake a sex verification test. The announcement was made by the International Association of Athletics Federation (IAAF) that they were seeking to undertake the test hours before the 2009 World Championship 800m final, undoubtedly invoking a less than ideal environment in her camp prior to, at the time, the most important race of her life. Despite the controversy, Semenya went on to take gold, ‘proved’ she was a woman and after reaching an agreement with the IAAF, kept her medal. Eleven months later, after undergoing more examinations, she was cleared to race and has since gone on to win a further 12 medals. One would hope this would have put the matter to rest and after having to go through an extremely difficult and emotionally challenging situation, could put the whole thing behind her and get on with her career.
The IAAF regulatory body has reared its ugly head once more however, with new rules coming into force that could circumvent a test that up until now has been sufficiently suitable for defining an athlete as male or female. Rules coming into force in November of this year state that women with ‘unnaturally’ high levels of testosterone face the choice of taking drugs to reduce these levels or race against men. Semenya would be one such athlete affected by this ruling. Seb Coe, the head of the IAAF, insists these rules are not about cheating, but rather levelling the playing field to ensure meaningful completion. Unsurprisingly those from Semenya’s home continent see things a little differently. There were cries of neo-colonialism from South African leaders, shaping this as an attempt by the global North to maintain hegemony over their previous Southern subjects. Whatever the reasons may be for why a ruling has come in that specifically targets one set of races that a woman, who has already successfully proven her sex (by their guidelines), keeps winning, there is a bigger issue here at hand.
The new IAAF ruling has effectively given us a quantitative measurement of a woman’s testosterone levels. By deciding what is normal (something that most of us are well aware doesn’t exist), the IAAF has now placed a red line on a level of one of the most integral hormones in our bodies. Men and women both have testosterone, men are meant to have more sure, but where do we draw the line, and most importantly – should we? Some women may have higher levels than other women, but also higher than other men too. Does having high testosterone constitute sufficient action to classify you as more akin to men than women?
While these rules are understandably an attempt to draw a line in a very difficult sandpit, they fail to consider the practical ramifications for female athletes, nor the psychological, emotional and social impact such a decision could have on a woman’s life. Firstly, once a substance that varies greatly between person to person and can be affected by a variety of external factors is given a threshold in competitive sport, it will inevitably be open to abuse. Many women that feel they are underperforming may feel motivated to increase their testosterone intake to put them on the ‘level playing field’ Seb Coe spoke of, leading testosterone to become a substance of abuse in the female middle distance athletic arena. More importantly though, consider the implications of such a decree over women.
More importantly though, consider the implications of such a decree over women.
In an already highly regulated and governed field, one of the few parts of your life that you could hope to retain some kind of control over, your sex, is also being interfered with. All it would take is for accusations of a female athlete looking like a man, which was the case with Semenya in 2009, and you could be tested. Failing that test is to be told you are too much like a man to run with other women. Your body’s natural adaptation to the sporting environment you are in is considered unnatural. So unnatural in fact that you must either take drugs that will mess with your hormones, doing who knows what to your body, or be classed as a man. Or quit.
The IAAF fails to recognise the damaging effect that such definition over something so varied and so integral to defining who we are as people, men and women, will have. By reducing male and female to relative quantities of specific hormones, we risk removing the very human aspect that competitive sport is meant to celebrate. Professional sport is meant to pit uniquely gifted individuals against one and other, while we ensure individuals do not cheat using external performance enhancing substances, the regulation of an endogenous substance not only invites a new kind of doping, it also infringes upon the rights of a woman to define themselves and be recognised as such in the very field to which they will have devoted their life.
Featured image via The Black Excellence Network
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