It’s been almost a full decade since we first wrote about South African Olympic runner Caster Semenya. At that time, Semenya was coming off a gold medal win in the 800 meter world championships. Immediately after her win, questions about Semenya’s gender arose. Launched by the International Association of Athletics Federation (IAFF), they were attempting to determine requirements to determine when a woman was able to compete as a woman.
Semenya, who was 18 at the time, passed this test though she was dubbed hyperandrogenous ever since, meaning she has elevated testosterone levels.
Now, according to CNN, a decade since her international win, Semenya is fighting to overturn a proposed regulation which would restrict the levels of testosterone in female athletes.
The regulation would require that athletes who are categorized as having a Difference of Sexual Development (DSD) will have to reduce blood testosterone levels for a continuous period of six months and maintain those reduced levels for the rest of their athletic career.
Female athletes who don’t agree to decrease their testosterone levels but still want to compete in international events will be forced to compete against men.
The case to determine if the regulation will be implemented or not will be decided on March 29.
The IAFF said that was attempting to ensure that “athletes who identify as female but have testes, and testosterone levels in the male range, at least drop their testosterone levels into the female range in order to compete at the elite level in the female classification. This standard is necessary to ensure fair competition for all women. Indeed, without it, we risk losing the next generation of female athletes, since they will see no path to success in our sport.”
The people of South Africa are concerned that Semenya is treated fairly. Semenya’s lawyers and Athletics South Africa (ASA) said the country has a “constitutional obligation to contest any infringements of human rights, as shaped by our experiences under apartheid.”
According to Herald Live, in response to the proposed regulation, Semenya said that it does not “empower anyone.” A statement from her legal team continued “[Semenya] 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”.
Tokozile Xasa, minister of sport and recreation, said that enforcing this type of restriction would be a violation of human rights.
“Women’s bodies, their well being, their ability to earn a livelihood, their very identity, their privacy and sense of safety and belonging in the world, are being questioned. This is a gross violation of internationally accepted standards of human rights law.”
I would argue that Semenya’s rights have already been violated. After Semenya’s gold medal win, she was unable to compete for much of 2009-2010 because she underwent gender verification tests. The results of the tests were never released but she was eventually cleared to compete again.
At the end of CNN’s article, they wrote that Semenya’s competitor British-born Lynsey Sharp cried at the end of the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics as she spoke about how difficult it was to compete against
“You can see how emotional it was…at the end. We know how each other feel about—it’s out of our control. I think the public can see as well just like how difficult it is with the change of rule. But all we can do is do our best. I was coming down the home strait. We’re not far away. We can see how close it is and that’s encouraging.”
She’s referring to officials deciding whether to implement a testosterone limit—which was first proposed in 2011 and overturned in 2015.
The thing about Lynsey’s complaint though is that she wasn’t as close as she thought. She came in sixth place in her race against Semenya. So in addition to losing Semenya, there were five other women—who presumably don’t have elevated testosterone levels—who she lost to.
And I can’t help but think that the new wave of enacting these testosterone requirements have to do with athletics federations being moved by a White woman’s tears, at the expense of a Black woman’s body.
The fact that Semenya, a South African woman, is having to verify her gender through tests and examinations harkens back to Saartjie “Sarah” Baartman and the way White people, fascinated by the proportions of her body, trotted her all over Europe in exhibition via “freak show attractions.” She too was examined and compared in what is now known as scientific racism.
What’s interesting about this debate and fairness is that there is no way to eliminate genetic advantages from sport competition. With the exception of Mugsy Bogues, people who are under six feet can’t expect to make it to the NBA, let alone compete at an Olympic level every four years. There’s a reason why so many Kenyans and African people consistently place in the top for track and field events. And the same was true for the 2016 Olympic games. Semenya’s first place finish was followed by Margaret Woambui of Kenya and Francine Niyonsaba of Burundi. Lynsey Sharp? Again, sixth place.
There’s more at play than just testosterone. And instead of accepting these realities, Sharp’s tears have been weaponized to excuse and accommodate for her own sixth-place earning inadequacies.