8 August 2016

Caster Semenya and the Pursuit of Fairness in Sport

Daniel Gallan

Caster Semenya is on a course with destiny and controversy at this year's Olympic Games in Rio. Gold in the 800m for the 25 year old South African is as close to a sure thing as you can get in sport. She has obliterated her opposition this season by running the fastest women's 800m race in eight years. However, as has been the case since she burst on the scene in 2009 as a prodigal teenager, questions around Semenya's gender-identity and whether or not it is fair that she is competing will be brought up. CONQA Sport unpacks the debate and finds that in this case, there are many more questions than answers.

Caster Semenya celebrates winning silver in the women's 800m final at the London 2012 Games. Four years ago, Semenya was forced to race while adhering to an upper limit on her testosterone levels. This year, she will run unimpeded.  Image supplied by Action Images / James O'Brien

Caster Semenya celebrates winning silver in the women's 800m final at the London 2012 Games. Four years ago, Semenya was forced to race while adhering to an upper limit on her testosterone levels. This year, she will run unimpeded. Image supplied by Action Images / James O'Brien

In the realm of sport, the discussion of fairness is usually clear cut. The concept of cheating, as seen in the recent doping scandals, is universally perceived as wrong. The integrity of sport and competition is tarnished when athletes give themselves an unfair advantage by dishonest means.

However, some advantages are seen as gifts bestowed on the few by the sporting gods. It is not unfair that the majority of us to do not benefit from the same natural physical capabilities that LeBron James, Michael Phelps and Usain Bolt enjoy. Of course hard work and sacrifice has seen these greats ascend to heights few ever reach, but no one can dispute that many of the best athletes are beneficiaries of the genetic lottery.

These advantages still fall within the bounds of what is considered fair as they do not guarantee competitive advantage. For example, the quality of an NBA player is not solely determined by how tall he is.

Advantages in height, wingspan, lung capacity, skeletal structure and fast twitch muscle fibres all play a deciding role in separating the great from the good in elite sport, but only marginally. This is why we do not separate athletes based on these variables.

Left handed athletes generally enjoy a marginal advantage over right handed athletes but we allow them to compete against each other because tactics and training can compensate for this. On the other hand, we do not allow 100kg boxers to fight against 60kg boxers because training cannot compensate for the discrepancy in power.

What we consider a fair fight in sport comes down to how much of an advantage one competitor has over another and also the source of that advantage. It is important to bear in mind that where we draw these boundaries is often arbitrary and subjective.

What is not subjective is that we draw a distinction between men and women in sport. Male and female athletes do not compete against each for one simple reason: it would be unfair to expect women to compete with men at the elite level of sport because men are objectively physically stronger and faster.

Take, for example, the women’s world record for the marathon set by Britain’s Paula Radcliffe in 2003 in a time of 2:15:25. Every year, over 400 men beat that time. If men and women competed as athletic equals, there would not be a single female athlete standing on a podium at any track and field, swimming, rowing, cycling or weight lifting events at this year’s Olympic Games. Potentially, female representation might be reduced to a handful of sports such as equestrian and gymnastics.

Even with heavy doping, female athletes competing against men would be like mixing 60kg boxers and 100kg boxers in the same division and expecting them to fight for the same belt. Not every man will beat every woman, and although there are outstanding outliers like Serena Williams who could potentially go toe to toe with many male pros, for the sake of fairness and for the protection of women’s sport we divide the human race in half. The main reason that this disparity among the sexes exists is down to a single source: the amount of testosterone in the human body.

As prominent sports scientist, Ross Tucker, says, “The single greatest athletic advantage a person can have is the presence of the Y chromosome and the SRY gene which tells the body to produce testosterone. That is a physical performance reality.” Once again, it doesn’t mean all men beat all women, but it does mean that performance is more powerfully influenced by that gene than any gene discovered to date.

Higher testosterone, especially after the onset of puberty, increases red blood cell count, muscle mass and strength, reduces fat, strengthens bones and helps the heart pump blood and oxygen around the body – obvious advantages in sport. On average, men have as much as ten times the amount of testosterone as women.

Reductions in testosterone can significantly impact performance, as Joana Harper found out in 2004 when she started hormone replacement therapy to reduce her testosterone levels and boost her oestrogen count. As soon as she did, her ability to run fast took a major hit.

Harper, in conversation with Tucker, describes herself as a “scientist first, an athlete second, and a transgender person third.” She is a medical physicist who is the only person ever to publish a peer-review article on the performance of transgender athletes after hormonal medical intervention and serves as an expert adviser to the IOC and the IAAF.  She explains that this was a difficult, but personally rewarding process.

“It was a major adjustment, but I always wanted to be more feminine so I was happy to see the changes in my body even though I was less athletic.” Harper says. “But it was a challenge. I couldn’t run as fast or lift as much weight as I could before therapy. A lot of transgender women ask me about the process and share their dismay about their loss of athletic ability and I tell them, “welcome to the weaker sex.” It’s not an easy thing.”

This brings us to Caster Semenya and the question of whether or not it is fair that she is competing in the Olympic Games in Rio. The 25 year old has never publicly stated that she is intersex, but allegations and speculations have plagued her since she burst on the scene at the 2009 World Championships in Berlin as a lightning quick teenager. Her gender-identity was challenged and a young woman found herself in the centre of a very public and humiliating media storm.

Joanna Harper describes herself as a "scientist first, an athlete second, and a transgender person third.” She sat on the Dutee Chand case on behalf of the IAAF and believes that anyone wishing to compete in women's sport should adhere to a testosterone limit.

Joanna Harper describes herself as a "scientist first, an athlete second, and a transgender person third.” She sat on the Dutee Chand case on behalf of the IAAF and believes that anyone wishing to compete in women's sport should adhere to a testosterone limit.

Now, Semenya is at the peak of her powers.  In Rio, she is not just going to compete - she is going to obliterate the competition. She has been in blistering form this year and has run the fastest 800m for eight years, in a time of 1:55.33. A 400m medal is also possible if she chooses to run this event. On top of all this, she also looks capable of breaking the longest standing world record in athletics history at some stage in the not too distant future.

For 33 long years, the women’s 800m record has been held by Jarmila Kratochvílová in a time of 1:53.28. Back then, Kratochvílová’s Czechoslovakia was still intact and Semenya’s South Africa was banned from international competition as a result of the oppressive apartheid regime. Our world has made great geopolitical strides in that time and yet we still find ourselves grappling with a conundrum that has hung over women’s sport for over three decades.

Ever since Mariá José Martínez-Patinö, a Spanish hurdler, was labelled as male after “failing” a gender test on the eve of the 1985 World University Games, world sport has struggled to wrap its head around the concept that the sex of a person is not always binary.

Like Martínez-Patinö, Semenya has a Y chromosome which allows her body to produce much more testosterone than her competitors. Unlike Martínez-Patinö, and many other intersex athletes, Semenya is so much better than her competition thanks largely to this genetic advantage. This creates a problem.

Harper, in light of criticism and hurtful comments around her participation and success in women’s races, asks in the Washington Post, “How slow would I need to be for them to be happy?” She doesn’t come up with a concrete answer but figures that were she to constantly finish at the back of the field, the derision would likely dry up.

She has a point. It’s very lonely at the top and elite sport is a competitive business. Step out from the crowd for too long and whatever they can stick to you, they will. Semenya stands out in the media because she is outstanding on the track, and because she was so publicly questioned in 2009. Had she been ordinary, there is no way she would have had endured the level of scrutiny she has faced.

When Oscar Pistorius, convicted murderer and South African Paralympic athlete, became the first amputee runner to compete in the able bodied Olympic Games, there were some grumblings that his prosthetic legs gave him some advantage. When he failed to progress to the final of the 400m race and could only help his country finish eighth in a field of nine in the 4x400m relay, talk of his ‘advantage’ soon quietened down and his inclusion was celebrated.

This theory is further supported by the case of Sarah Gronert, an intersex German tennis player who only managed to reach a high of 164 on the world’s rankings. For a number of reasons, Gronert faced a fraction of the abuse that Semenya has received. She is white, she is European and she never climbed anywhere near the summit of the women’s game. Semenya is the complete opposite and it would be foolish to think that her race and place of birth has not added fuel to the fire.

But it is Semenya’s success that provokes the most. There seems to be a discomfort with how dominant Semenya is and not just with what she may be. She not only challenges a conservative heteronormative viewpoint, she threatens the status-quo with her athletic prowess.

As a result, her gender and identity have been attacked and questioned, something a teenager or young adult does not need any help with. Internet trolls spew vitriol from the safety of their caves by calling her a man and worse. They reference her muscular physique, her deep voice and the fact that her body produces a high amount of testosterone and declare that she must be a man. Semenya does not fit the feminist ideal and astonishingly that still irks some people.

It’s not just the trolls though. Many respected female athletes have expressed their concern. Shannon Rowbury, an American athlete who will be competing against Semenya in the 800m and potentially the 1500m, has said thatSemenya’s inclusion, “Challenges and threatens the integrity of women’s sport.” She added that, “Women have fought far too long to be able to even have the right to compete and now that is being challenged by intersex and trans-athletes and I don’t think that is right.” Once again, the issue here is about fairness.

Harper agrees, but cautions me against using the word ‘fair’ as she says that creates a binary. “Then, it’s about fair to who?” she says. “If it’s about being fair to the other athletes, then it’s not equally fair.”

In order to avoid a binary outcome whereby either side of the argument benefits at the overt expense of the other, the IAAF became the first international sports federation to pass a law governing the eligibility of females with hyperandrogenism (high levels of testosterone) to compete in women’s competition.

A limit of 10 nanomoles per litre (nmol/L) of serum was set, with mandatory testing and a 12 month ban for any athlete who crossed this threshold. This limit was set so that sports could ensure fairness without inserting themselves into discussions of gender identity. The tests were not about identifying females, but rather ensuring fair competition for females.

Dutee Chand, the Indian sprinter who turned world athletics on its head, undergoes a training session. Few other athletes have shaped a sport as much as this young Indian woman has. 

Dutee Chand, the Indian sprinter who turned world athletics on its head, undergoes a training session. Few other athletes have shaped a sport as much as this young Indian woman has. 

Tucker believes that this limit was “very generous” as it was based on a study of all women competing at the 2011 and 2013 World Championships. “99% of female athletes had testosterone levels below 3.08 nmol/L,” he says.

According to the research conducted by the IAAF, the six athletes who were intersex at the 2011 World Championships had testosterone levels ranging from 15.6 to 30 nmol/L (“We do not know Semenya’s specific value”, Tucker adds.) Reducing their testosterone below 10 would greatly diminish their advantage, but they may still enjoy an advantage over their competitors.

After this rule was implemented, Semenya’s times were significantly impacted but she still managed to win a silver medal at London 2012. In a twist of fate, this may be bumped up to gold after allegations that Russia’s Mariya Savinova used performance enhancing drugs, possibly including testosterone, during the Games.

Gold or silver, Semenya’s performance in the 800m while adhering to the IAAF’s restrictions was remarkable. She was 21 and still far from approaching her peak. Harper and Tucker are both of the opinion that were Semenya to adhere to the 10nmol/L limit, she might still be among the favourites to win a medal. As it is, she is all but assured gold.

Semenya can be thankful then that the ban was lifted last year after the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) reversed the IAAF’s rule after hearing the case of Dutee Chand, an Indian sprinter who was barred from competing in the 2014 Commonwealth Games by the Sports Authority of India after her testosterone levels were deemed too high to compete as a female. Interestingly, both Harper and Patinö sat in on the case on behalf of the IAAF, an ordeal that Harper admits brought her to tears despite the fact that she believes she was on the right side of justice and fairness.

After the hearing, CAS was in agreement that higher levels of testosterone “may increase athletic performance”, but said it was “not satisfied that the degree of that advantage is more significant than the advantage derived from numerous other variables which the parties acknowledge also affect female athletic performance: for example, nutrition, access to specialist training facilities and coaching, and other genetic and biological variations.”

Since the rule was lifted, Semenya has returned to a position of dominance. For Tucker, the reason is obvious. “Of course it’s her testosterone levels,” he says. “She’s back to her 2009 levels and she’ll go faster. I’d estimate that she has about a 5-10% advantage (which, incidentally, is the range that the doped up Soviet and East German women enjoyed). In the 800m, that advantage equates to about 9 seconds”.

This brings us full circle to the question of fairness. Semenya’s advantage over her competitors is comparable to the advantage of those doping Eastern Bloc women benefited from, and we are surely in agreement that those advantages were wholly unfair. Of course, unlike Semenya, those women used performance enhancing drugs, but the disparity in athletic ability is just as great.

Ultimately, there are three camps in this argument. The first is that Semenya and all women with hyperandrogenism should be banned outright from competition. This is exclusionary, goes against everything that sport stands for and does not deserve any airtime.

The second case is that women with hyperandrogenism should be able to compete as they are. Transgender and intersex people are among the most misunderstood and misrepresented people on the planet. According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention,  41% of trans or gender nonconforming people in the US have attempted suicide. By comparison, 4.6% of the general population have tried to take their own life.

When Semenya wins gold in Rio, she will provide inspiration and hope for millions of people around the world who do not have plethora of role models the majority of us enjoy. When Semenya wins gold, she will show the world that you can be proud of who you are, regardless of what society considers ‘normal’. This is something to celebrate.

Finally, there is a third camp, and one that perhaps makes the most sense once you remove any emotional ties you may have to this narrative. Until such time as there are enough trans- and intersex athletes competing at the elite level to warrant a third category in sport, athletes with hyperandrogenism should have to reduce their testosterone levels if they want to compete against other women. 

Both Tucker and Harper agree that 10nmol/L is more than fair, but this is simply an arbitrarily agreed upon number. That limit can shift either way, but a palatable limit must exist and must be enforced.

The truth is there will never be consensus. As Harper says, “You will never make everyone happy with any decision. I’ve had women’s rights groups trash me for defending a limit and I’ve had women’s rights groups champion me for standing up for the integrity of women’s sport. There is no entirely justified side. How can there be?”

Whatever position you take, Semenya is not a cheat and should not be treated as such. Nor is she a man seeking to take advantage of a loophole that she has managed to wriggle through.  She is a phenomenal athlete who is using the athletic gifts with which she was born within the rules that have benefited her. Until such time as the IAAF, the IOC and CAS set a limit that is both ethically sound and athletically fair, Semenya deserves all the accolades and triumphs that are on her horizon. 

CONQA Sport is hosting our second annual Elite Sport Summit in Cape Town on 5 & 6 October 2016.