Who is a woman? It’s not up to sports organizations to decide
Byline: Selim Jones
A tall, muscular, strong jawed person bursts ahead of their competition. They pass the finish line almost a full two seconds ahead of their world-class competition. They just won gold in the women’s 800 meters in the 2016 Olympics—but is this person a woman?
This person is 28 year old South African runner Caster Semenya. She’s been dominating the competition ever since she jumped into the spotlight as a relatively unknown quantity in 2009, but questions about her gender have spattered her career. Semenya identifies as female, but it is more complex than that. It is to be reasonably assumed, although never officially revealed, that she has XY chromosomes. She is intersex which means she has some traits that conform neither to regular male or female standards; and has been diagnosed with hyperandrogenism, meaning she has unusually high amounts of male sex hormones such as testosterone. Women also produce testosterone, just generally at a lower level than men.
It is commonly believed that having higher testosterone levels leads to advantages in strength and speed. Despite the fact that many estimate the testosterone difference between males and females gives males a 12% advantage, and the best Semenya has ever run was 2% better than her opponents, it is perceived by the IAAF that she has extreme advantages.
The International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) has been attempting to regulate these advantages for years. On Wednesday, May 8, the IAAF put in place their most drastic, controversial, and incorrect ruling: they will now require intersex athletes to take medications to lower the level of the hormone in their bodies—or race against men instead.
“I just want to run naturally, the way I was born. It is not fair that I am told I must change,” said Semenya in response to IAAF’s ruling, which she unsuccessfully appealed. “It is not fair that people question who I am.”
In a vacuum, without the lens of the world we live in to clear your vision, this seems like a fair ruling. Semenya does have an advantage. It will be harder for her less-testosterone-fueled competitors to keep up. But you know what? Since when have we cared about genetic advantages in sports? We didn’t care when it was revealed that Michael Phelps produces less than half the lactic acid than his competition, a huge advantage. Usain Bolt is a genetic marvel. These specimens are applauded for their incredible genetics. Try getting a 5 foot 8 basketball hopeful to feel for the women this ruling is designed to help. Male athletes do not need to stay below a maximum testosterone level. It has never even been considered.
As you can see, the IAAF has created an unjust, discriminatory law. Especially in our world of evolving views on gender identity, it is very important we get it right even when someone doesn’t look like how we think a “woman” should look. Many have complained that this ruling is targeted towards Semenya, who is black, because of racial and sexual bias.
This is not only an issue affecting Olympic-level athletes. Many intersex and transgender high school athletes have done very well, causing outrage and even in a few cases, the boycott of competition against them.
But surely Oakland, the same Oakland that has the country’s highest proportion of lesbian couples at 1 in every 41, has a more accepting policy.
Well, Oakland abides by the California Interscholastic Federation (CIF)’s policy, which is actually somewhat middling. Some good, some bad. It starts out with a strong message: “All students should have the opportunity to participate in CIF activities in a manner that is consistent with their gender identity, irrespective of the gender listed on a student’s records.” However, students who identify as a gender separate from that on their birth certificate must go through an intensive appeal process that may be incredibly time-consuming. The policy also focuses on maintaining the privacy of the student involved in this stressful situation.
“I don’t think there will ever be a soundproof solution on how to determine who should compete with whom in terms of gender,” said OAL commissioner Sonjha Phillips of the CIF’s policy. “There will always be exceptions and the rules will not always fit each individual case.”
This may be true, and let us truly hope that any and all future cases in the OAL will be handled well and with respect, but in the case of Caster Semenya, the solution is obvious: let the WOMAN compete.