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Caster Semenya and the 2 Types of Discrimination Against Women in Sports

By Alan Levinovitz

Caster Semenya
Photo credit: Citizen59

In the wake of the decision to bar South African Olympic champion Caster Semenya from participating in the women’s 800m, Alan Levinovitz reminds us in this excerpt from Natural: How Faith in Nature’s Goodness Leads to Harmful Fads, Unjust Laws, and Flawed Science of the long and fraught history of policing the male/female binary in sports, and the role that “naturalness” plays in the process.


The value of inclusiveness, like fairness, is written into the International Association of Athletics Federations’ (IAAF) official constitution. One of the organization’s primary goals is “to strive to ensure that no gender, race, religious, political or other kind of unfair discrimination exists, continues to exist, or is allowed to develop in Athletics in any form, and that all may participate in Athletics regardless of their gender, race, religious or political views or any other irrelevant factor.”

That gender shouldn’t affect one’s ability to participate in athletics is now taken for granted, but only after overcoming centuries of pseudoscientific sexism arguing that women were naturally unfit to compete. In ancient Greece, women could not participate in the Olympics, and married women were prohibited from watching. They were also left out of the first modern Olympics, since, in the words of Baron Pierre de Coubertin, founder of the games, their inclusion would be “impractical, uninteresting, unaesthetic, and incorrect.”

Even after women were allowed to participate, it was only in those sports believed to accord with their naturally delicate physiology: tennis, croquet, sailing, and golf. Experts warned that more strenuous events might cause women to age prematurely, their uteruses to fall out, and perhaps turn them into men. When the 800 meters was opened to women in the 1928 Olympics, scandalized journalists exaggerated or invented the fatigue experienced by the competitors. “Below us on the cinder path were 11 wretched women, 5 of whom dropped out before the finish, while 5 collapsed after reaching the tape,” claimed one account in the New York Evening Post. “It is obviously beyond women’s powers of endurance, and can only be injurious to them,” asserted another writer in the Montreal Daily Star. In fact, only nine women had run the race, all of them finished, and only one could conceivably be characterized as collapsing. But the truth didn’t matter. In accordance with an invented version of natural law, women were banned from the 800 meters until 1960.

When it comes to women’s participation in sports, there’s an important distinction to be drawn between two types of discrimination. The first type of discrimination bars women from participating in sports thought to be incompatible with women’s biology, such as ski jumping, the 800 meters, and boxing (men’s only until the 2012 Olympics). This type of discrimination has been repeatedly shown to have no basis in science. When it comes to women’s ability to participate in and excel at any sport, gender should be considered an “irrelevant factor,” as the IAAF describes it.

The second type of discrimination is that which divides men and women for the purposes of competition. With the exception of equestrian events and sailing, in every Olympic sport, and in nearly every professional sport, men compete against men and women compete against women. Some have suggested that having men’s and women’s categories also represents an unfair form of discrimination, and ought to be replaced with different classificatory categories that more accurately reflect the physical traits demanded by a given sport, a practice that already has precedent in the use of weight classes. “For example, for a 100m sprinter, the ideal athlete would perhaps be made up of muscle mass and fast-twitch fibres,” writes Roslyn Kerr, a sociologist of sport, “Therefore, rather than classifying by sex, sprinters could be classified by their level of muscle mass and fast-twitch fibres.”

Despite such critiques, advocates of female participation in sports generally recognize the need for, and benefits of, sex segregation. The exercise physiologist Ross Tucker puts it straightforwardly: “Being genetically male is the single biggest performance advantage in sport.” The advantage enjoyed by biological males exceeds that of other comparatively advantageous traits, including height and weight. A 2010 study quantified the gap between men’s and women’s top performances in eighty-two different events, from swimming to speed skating. Starting in 1896, the gap narrowed significantly over time as women were allowed to participate in sports. But by 1983 the gap stabilized “at a mean difference of 10.0% ± 2.94 between men and women for all events.” The gap depends on the sport, from 5.5 percent for 800-meter freestyle swimming to 36.8 percent for weightlifting. Nevertheless, the overall conclusion is clear: “Results suggest that women will not run, jump, swim or ride as fast as men.” Discrimination of the second type is based on good science, not pseudoscientific sexism, and there’s a very strong case to be made that it is beneficial for elite female athletes, who would not otherwise get to compete at the highest levels of their sport.

However, policing the division between men and women in sports has a long and fraught history. Since men have the biological advantage, the only athletes subject to sex testing have been women. In the 1960s, when official testing standards were first adopted by the International Olympic Committee and the IAAF, female athletes were subject to incredibly humiliating inspections, including being paraded naked in front of doctors who would inspect their genitalia and pronounce them genuine women. Widespread indignation led to the adoption of chromosome testing, but that proved equally controversial. Unlike weight and height, biological sex occasionally defies simple forms of measurement. This fact was vividly and tragically illustrated in a horrific ordeal endured by the Spanish hurdler Maria José Martínez-Patiño. In 1985, she was looking forward to competing in the World University Games in Japan as a woman, just as she always had. Now a physician, Martínez-Patiño has made public the painful details of what happened. “Our team doctor told me—in front of the teammates I sat with on the night before my race—that there was a problem with my result,” she recalls. The doctor told her to fake an injury and withdraw from the race. She agreed, devastated, not knowing what exactly had gone wrong. “Did I have AIDS? Or leukaemia, the disease that had killed my brother?”

Two months later, the official results arrived. She was 46, XY—the male karyotype. But because of a condition known as androgen insensitivity, Martínez-Patiño was insensitive to testosterone, which is why no one, including her, had any idea: “When I was conceived, my tissues never heard the hormonal messages to become male.” Eventually her story was leaked to the press, with catastrophic results:

I was expelled from our athletes’ residence, my sports scholarship was revoked, and my running times were erased from my country’s athletics records. I felt ashamed and embarrassed. I lost friends, my fiancé, hope, and energy. But I knew that I was a woman, and that my genetic difference gave me no unfair physical advantage. I could hardly pretend to be a man; I have breasts and a vagina. I never cheated.

Martínez-Patiño successfully appealed her disqualification, and after a few different attempts to standardize the testing practices, the IOC gave up and adopted a “suspicion-based” approach. If someone seemed like they might not be a woman, well, then they’d be subjected to further testing.

Unsurprisingly, this approach failed miserably. In 2009, South African runner named Caster Semenya, then eighteen years old, won gold at the Berlin World Championships, crushing her rivals in the once-forbidden-to-women 800 meters. Some of them were suspicious. “These kind[s] of people should not run with us,” stated the Italian sixth-place finisher Elisa Cusma. “For me, she’s not a woman. She’s a man.” The IAAF responded by requiring tests, and, as in Martínez-Patiño’s case, news of the testing leaked to the press. Some members of the media mocked Semenya’s “masculine” appearance and called her a hermaphrodite. She reportedly spent two hours with her legs in stirrups to facilitate examination and photographs of her genitalia, and eventually went into hiding, undergoing treatment for trauma.

In the wake of the Semenya debacle, the IAAF issued a new standard for competing as a female, this time based on testosterone. Again, there were problems. The new standard disqualified all female competitors with hyperandrogenism, a rare condition that causes women to have testosterone levels that are in the typically male range, which, some speculate, is what Semenya has. In 2014, testing revealed that the Indian sprinter Dutee Chand was also above the limit set by the IAAF for female competitors. The Sports Authority of India subsequently ruled that Chand “will still be able to compete in the female category in [the] future if she takes proper medical help and lowers her androgen [testosterone] level to the specified range.”

Appalled at the thought of having to artificially lower her naturally produced androgen level with medication, Chand appealed her case to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS), the same administrative body that considered Pistorius’s case. The naturalness of her hyperandrogenism, as well as the potential side effects of a medical intervention, was central to her case. She argued that any advantage she enjoyed was a “natural genetic gift,” and that in no other case do natural physiological advantages disqualify an athlete. “These interventions are invasive, often irreversible and will harm my health now and into my future,” she said in a statement to the CAS. “I am unable to understand why I am asked to fix my body in a certain way simply for participation as a woman. I was born a woman, reared up as a woman, I identify as a woman and I believe I should be allowed to compete with other women, many of whom are either taller than me or come from more privileged backgrounds, things that most certainly give them an edge over me.”

Chand’s case was taken up by numerous experts, including the Stanford bioethicist Katrina Karkazis. “When a man has unusually high levels of testosterone, the next step is a carbon isotope test,” she told me. “If it’s deemed to be natural, the case is closed. But for women, if it’s natural the case is not closed, and you get ushered into more tests.” Although Chand won her appeal, the issue is far from settled. In late 2018, the IAAF issued new testosterone limits that would, once again, disqualify Chand and other hyperandrogenous female athletes. The limits sparked outrage, and Caster Semenya made a rare public statement denouncing them. “I don’t like talking about this new rule,” she said. “I just want to run naturally, the way I was born. It is not fair that I am told I must change. It is not fair that people question who I am. I am Mokgadi Caster Semenya. I am a woman and I am fast.” (As of this writing, Semenya’s fate still hangs in the balance. By the time you read these words, it may have been settled.)

The IAAF’s clarifying comments are notably unhelpful, lurching between recognition that sport “seeks to celebrate” a combination of “natural talent and sacrifice and determination” while also maintaining that high testosterone levels are a unique natural biological advantage that should be regulated. Part of the dilemma is that the distinct biological advantage enjoyed by men over women cannot be translated into a rule about testosterone. Hyperandrogenous women are not men. They do not exhibit the same kind of dominance in their respective sports that men would. Nevertheless, the question remains open: If testosterone levels fail to capture that advantage, how can regulatory bodies like the CAS fairly adjudicate the division between men’s and women’s sports.


About the Author 

Alan Levinovitz is associate professor of religious studies at James Madison University. In addition to academic journals, his writing has appeared in Wired, the Washington Post, the AtlanticAeonVoxSlate, and elsewhere. He is the author of Natural: How Faith in Nature’s Goodness Leads to Harmful Fads, Unjust Laws, and Flawed Science. Connect with him on Twitter at @AlanLevinovitz.