Caster Semenya has gained international fame for her ability on the track, winning the gold medal in both the 2012 and 2016 Olympics for 800m, amongst other accolades. However, with this extraordinary athletic performance came media scrutiny and discrimination throughout her career.
In 2009, after winning the World Championships and beating previous records, eyebrows were raised left and right on her tremendous ability to excel. Due to a combination of factors that include her rapid athletic progression and appearance, the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) inquired a gender verification test to determine if she was truly female.
The tests include measuring functional testosterone levels, hoarseness of one’s voice, development of pubic hair and breasts, and the size of one’s labia, amongst others that aim to determine the degree of masculinity. We can all agree that this must be deeply humiliating, as it is a very personal affair that was thrown into the media spotlight. Moreover, public perception of the difference between gender and sex was and still is very shallow. For Semenya, who identifies and has grown up as female, this was very psychologically challenging and emotionally traumatising.
Semenya was found to have an unusually high testosterone level, which is called hyperandrogenism. The IAAF stated that women with higher testosterone levels confer an unfair advantage against others. This leads to the questions:
How much testosterone should a woman naturally possess in order to compete professionally in the “female category”?
Does testosterone enhance performance in sports?
The history of hyperandrogenism in the world of female sports has not been a smooth one. In 2015, Indian runner Dutee Chand was suspended from any race due to her naturally high testosterone levels. She appealed to the court and research from IAFF showed a mere 1-3% performance difference between testosterone levels in female athletes, compared to that of 10-12% between male and female athletes. Thus, the court ruled in favour of Chand and she was allowed to compete again.
Last year, IAFF ruled that athletes with hyperandrogenism are required to medically lower their testosterone levels to “normal female range” in order to compete in the 400m, 800m, and 1,500m. Many have criticised this decision and saw it as a targeted attack on Semenya who competes in middle-distance events. The research to back the ruling compared testosterone levels in high and low performing athletes in different events. The use of event-specific variables lacked validity, as athletes who take part in a specific event may all have low testosterone levels and vice versa.
Some, like the IAFF, view it as a medical condition that confers an advantage in sport and thus has to be controlled, whilst some like Semenya, see it as a genetic gift. Semenya said, “God made me the way I am and I accept myself.” These powerful words aim to rally support for her as she challenges the new restrictions in court and forces us to rethink gender-based regulations in sports.
Former World No. 1 tennis player, Billie Jean King said, “Forcing women with naturally high testosterone to give up ownership of their bodies and take drugs to compete in sport is barbaric, dangerous, and discriminatory.”
As a student of Biomedical Science, understanding biological processes is complex and merely attributing Semenya’s success to high testosterone levels is a completely reductionist perspective. Even with a different body chemistry compared to the norm, there still needs to be consistent perseverance and hard work, something Semenya has proved over and over again. Moreover, the author of the 2017 paper that led to the IAFF to change its regulations acknowledged that there has been no direct causation between the effects of testosterone on enhanced athletic performance in women.
This case has opened up conversations on what it means to be female in sports. Medical reports of Semenya has never been released but there have been suggestions that she has androgen insensitivity syndrome, meaning someone is genetically male but does not respond to or has a defect in the testosterone receptor gene during development, thus develops as female. Gender is complex and not a single trait – in this case, testosterone levels – can define a person’s gender. Semenya identifies as female and should be acknowledged as one. Kate Fagan, a sports commentator said, “I know Semenya is a woman because people are trying to control her body.” Some argue that men are not subjected to the same gender scrutiny and sports authorities are consistently obsessed with the definition of womanhood.
The one message to come out of this is the importance to understand gender fluidity and expression, and their difference between sex. Ignorance and the lack of knowledge can lead to insensitivity. Women and men with any genetic variations should be celebrated for their natural talents, not held back.