August 24, 2016

Why you can’t answer the Question of Caster Semenya.

Caster is not a woman. She identifies as a woman, but is intersex—a category that doesn’t really exist in Africa. Her voice is a man’s voice, she’s married to a woman (which is great), she has female genitalia, undescended male testicles and no uterus or ovaries, and her testosterone levels are 3x all the other women she’s competing against. She was widely accused of running slowly so that she wouldn’t set the all-time record—and still won by 7 strides over second place. So what’s fair? Not just saying “it’s all love.” ~ Waylon Lewis, editor-in-chief

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To say that Caster Semenya is controversial is an understatement.

She’s a women’s gold medalist runner. She’s also intersex. Her success in the Rio games has everyone upset.

Except me.

I’ve heard murmurs about questions of gender in the Olympics. I remember hearing about an athlete’s gender being questioned in 2009. And I read an article that showcased how broken-hearted the Great Britain competitors were over their loss to Semenya.

I don’t much care about sports or the Olympics. But I do care about human rights and women’s rights. Semenya’s gold medals aren’t about athletic ability, or testosterone, or country medal counts. Her success raises important questions about equality, fairness, and the rights of the individual.

Should Caster Semenya be allowed to compete against women in the Olympics? Gender and sports expert Joanna Harper brilliantly nails the dilemma in this question:

“And this is the heart of the matter. How do we support and protect women’s sport and, at the same time, honor the rights of a marginalized segment of humanity?”

But before we can answer Harper’s question, we need to go back and answer some foundational questions.

What are the Olympics about? According to The International Olympic Committee (IOC), the Olympics are about building a better world through sport. The “Olympic spirit” “requires mutual understanding with a spirit of friendship, solidarity, and fair play.”

The Olympics aren’t about winning. The Games are about bringing the world together peacefully, in order to promote understanding. And yet, on my local news website, every day of the Olympics there has been a link to the “Olympic medal count by country.” In addition, we all know that athletes earn money through advertising contracts, which depends on their medal count. So which is it? Unity or medal counting?

Many people will argue with me that while it’s all well and good to be idealistic about the point of the Olympics, we have to acknowledge the reality that counting medals will happen, and therefore it is naïve to pretend that winning doesn’t matter. Yet we expect our athletes to be good losers. No one blamed the American swimmer Michael Phelps for making angry faces when his South African competitor Chad Le Clos danced in front of him before their race.

Which man is the right role model for my 5-year-old, Chad Le Clos or Michael Phelps? The British athlete Lynsey Sharp was criticized for not rejoicing over her loss to Semenya: apparently showing disappointment is akin to being a “poor loser.” So which is it? Winning at all costs, or being a good sport no matter what the result?

If the Olympics are about unity through sport, and community building through sports competition, then the question becomes one of fairness versus equality.

Equality is treating everyone the same, regardless of external circumstances. Think the tennis player Billie Jean King facing off against Bobby Riggs. A match between a male and a female player. That’s equality.

Fairness is creating areas of competition that allow people at different levels to have a chance at winning. And now we’ve reached Harper’s question.

“How do we support and protect women’s sport and, at the same time, honor the rights of a marginalized segment of humanity?”

Women-only competitions contribute to creating, according to Harper and many others, equality through fairness. Making sure a group of competitors have similar abilities is fair. Making all the competitors abide by the same standards is equal. Abiding by both rules ensures that in a group of competitors, they all have an equivalent chance of winning.

So what is fair and equal when it comes to intersex athletes? Equality demands that all athletes who meet the requirements and follow the rules be allowed to compete. Fairness suggests that athletes with advantages must be handicapped: their advantages removed to create an even playing field.

Complicating the issue is the wide range of intersex conditions. A person is not simply intersex. There are over 10 conditions which result in the classification of intersex. Some of these conditions result in high testosterone levels, while others result in low testosterone levels, or an insensitivity to testosterone.

Currently, science suggests that testosterone gives athletic competitors an advantage. Which means that you can’t solve the problem simply by creating a third competitive category of “intersex” competitions: people with drastically different testosterone levels and sensitivity would be competing, creating an unequal competition. And the science isn’t even remotely complete. Who knows what we will learn about intersex conditions in the next few decades?

The question of how to deal fairly and justly with intersex athletes is just the tip of the iceberg for human rights related to intersex issues.

The International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) is trying to find a way to answer this question, and so far they haven’t found a good solution. It’s simple to say that we should just ban all intersex competitors or to say that categories are limited by gender and testosterone levels. But do either of these solutions address the human rights of intersex athletes? Hardly. The first step to a solution is acknowledging that there are no easy answers.

It’s okay to think about this as a gray area. We don’t have all the information we need. We are still learning how to discuss these questions rationally.

But in the interim, we can do one thing: we can treat Caster Semenya and others like her with respect. Regardless of her hormone levels, she trained and sacrificed and participated and won.

And that is no small feat.


Author: Elaine Bayless 

Image: Twitter

Editor: Sara Kärpänen

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