Throughout the course of her career, Caster Semenya’s higher than average testosterone levels have been the centre of much public and legal discussion regarding the fairness of the athlete’s incredible success.
Caster Semenya’s long waged battle against the IAAF reached a climax point this month with a ruling that states all female athletes with different sex developments (DSD) must take hormone suppressants in order to take part in any distance running over 400 metres against other women. The ruling is based on the belief that women, such as Semenya, who show high levels of testosterone, have an unfair biological advantage over other female athletes and thus are eligible to compete in men’s races despite their gender identity.
The science behind the ruling stipulates that higher testosterone levels can create an advantage in athletic performance in all sports, yet it is suggested that middle distance running is where the difference in testosterone is most clear.
Many scientific experts refute the science behind the ruling, with some such as Bradly Anwalt, a hormone specialist at the University of Washington Medical Centre that has stated that trying to “quantify competitive advantage in naturally occurring levels of the hormone” can prove unreliable.
Others have also pointed out that the ruling ignores the fact that many male athletes have biological differences. An article from Stuff uses the example of Michael Phelps whose body is said to produce less than half the lactic acid of the average person was praised by the Olympic committee for his “insane genetic advantage.”
The ruling has exposed a number of issues within the sporting world, with the two most significant being a long history of the policing of women’s bodies and the idea of a fixed gender binary.
Women’s bodies have been policed in almost all areas of life, including the sporting world. Even as early as the 1950s, the IAAF had introduced compulsory sex testing of women that, at times, even including surgical measures. The ideas that encouraged such testing in previous years still remain, as female athletes who incredible performance are faced with the question, “but are you a real woman?” It is quite easy to see similarities between Semenya’s case as with other athletes like Serena Williams whose career has been subjected to a public critical of her body size and physical presentation.
Additionally, the ruling also holds onto heteronormative ideas of a gender binary system. Testosterone is a hormone produced by both female and male bodies, yet as there are usually higher levels of testosterone produced by men, the hormone is often referred to as a male hormone. Despite the fact that science has shown that there is no biological marker that indicates whether or not a person may singularly be classed as male or female, the institution of sport’s scrutiny of DSD athletes enforces this gender binary.
It is also important to note that male athletes are not examined in the same manner and have never had to undergo sex testing despite the fact there are biological differences apparent in many athletes.
The sexist and homophobic undertones of the ruling have been the centre of much public rage. Athletics Canada has shown its support by stating that will not implement the ruling, as well the World Medical Association whose membership spans across 114 countries. If you wish to add the conversation and voice your support for Caster follow #HandsOffCaster or #LetHerRun on Twitter and you can sign this petition.