Women’s sports are for only certain kinds of women.
That’s what the Court of Arbitration for Sport has decided in allowing the International Association of Athletics Federations (the world’s track and field governing body) to bar South African runner Caster Semenya from competing until she unnaturally lowers her testosterone levels.
The Court said in its ruling that the IAAF rules “are discriminatory,” but the panel decided that this discrimination is “necessary.”
To say this ruling reshapes women’s sports is not an overstatement. Semenya was born a girl, raised as a girl, grew into a woman, and is a woman. No one, not even the very Court that has approved of this discrimination, contests that Semenya is a woman.
Yet because she’s been somewhat successful on the track, winning two Olympic golds and three world championships in the 800-meter run, she has been targeted due to what has been reported as a higher-than-average testosterone level naturally occurring in her body.
To be clear, Semenya is not transgender. Given the application of the IAAF rule to Semenya it is assumed that she is intersex, though Semenya has never confirmed that fact.
Regardless, the IAAF policy has been designed specifically to stop her, limiting natural testosterone in only runners who compete in distances from 400 meters to the mile. What are the distances Semenya competes at internationally? The 400-meter, 800-meter and 1,500-meter.
This isn’t just discrimination, it is targeted discrimination.
The targeting of Semenya in this way has been strategic and cynical. Dutee Chand, an Indian sprinter who couldn’t make it out of the preliminary round of the women’s 100-meter at the 2016 Olympics, undercut the claims of unfair advantages for intersex athletes. So the IAAF cut her out of the conversation by not targeting her events.
Now to compete Semenya must alter who she is as a woman, all because she was too successful.
Gender witch hunts
This kind of gender witch hunt in sports has been going on for decades, each time with everyone eventually abandoning the practice.
In the 1950s the IAAF — which is now banning Semenya — mandated physical examinations of every female athlete. The Olympics followed suit. Women would have to display their naked bodies in front of a panel of doctors for examination, all to weed out the men posing as women to gain an advantage.
Then came the Soviet-era chromosome testing, which sought to identify a Y chromosome in athletes that might give someone a perceived advantage. It was also designed to catch any men trying to disguise themselves physically as women to gain an advantage.
Of course these fears are familiar, as they are currently the mantras being used by Martina Navratilova and other women to attack transgender athletes — namely that men will try to sneak into women’s sports.
As in Animal Farm, these women in sports are now aiming to close sports to certain kinds of women. Semenya, whose “case” started in 2009 with hormone testing, has gotten caught in the crossfire.
While Navratilova has said she opposes this particular ruling, her opposition to it contradicts her own positions about what she claims is “protecting” women’s sports. These new regulations target women with a Y chromosome. The attacks by her and so many others on transgender athletes have in part led us to this place. Even her statement after the ruling — invoking transgender athletes while saying that Semenya has “done nothing wrong” — continues to create villains in a sports world where women are just trying to participate and compete.
“All women are equal, but some women are more equal than others.”
The one singular ‘unfair’ advantage
This ruling also follows Navratilova’s campaign against trans athletes almost verbatim, that testosterone levels are the one “advantage” that women’s sports must deem “unfair.” Height, natural build, natural speed, coaching, resources — All of those things are fair game in the world of the IAAF and Navratilova.
Too much testosterone? Shame! Shame! Shame!
Swimmer Katie Ledecky can blow the competition out of the pool and shatter records. Her natural advantages are fair.
When Semenya does the same exact thing — but not in as dominant a fashion — her advantages are deemed unfair.
At the 2016 Summer Olympics, Ledecky won four Olympic golds, including the 400-meter freestyle. Her time in that was a world record, beating the silver medalist by 1.7% of the second-place time. That world-record time would have beaten eight men at that very meet.
At those same Olympics, Semenya won the women’s 800-meter by 1.21 seconds, or 1.0% of her time (far less of a gap than Ledecky’s win). Her gold-medal time was 13.13 seconds behind David Rudisha, who won the men’s event. That time would have been dead last in the men’s heats. Heck, she was a full two seconds behind the women’s world record.
Yet Semenya — not Ledecky — is so dangerous to the existence of women’s sports, according to IAAF and the Court, that she must be banned.
It is not lost on many people that Ledecky is a white American, and Semenya is a black South African.
Some trans athletes will be pleased
Interestingly, some transgender athletes will celebrate this ruling.
In a roundabout way, the IAAF and the Court have made a case for the inclusion of trans athletes in women’s sports. By tying competition in women’s sports to testosterone levels and not chromosomes or gender presumed at birth, they have affirmed the inclusion of trans women.
As long as an athlete gets their testosterone level to the range deemed “fair” in women’s sports, they can compete as a woman.
The ruling also included this powerful statement, which lays the foundation for a challenge to the entire structure of sports:
The decision is also constrained by the accepted, necessary, binary division of athletics into male events and female events, when there is no such binary division of athletes.
For trans athletes who have been arguing that the division of sports into men and women is flawed, they just got confirmation that the Court may agree with them.
Still, there’s a way for all women to co-exist in women’s sports. Telling intersex women that their advantages are “unfair,” and forcing them into hormone therapy to compete, flies in the face of the very values of inclusion and participation that make sports such a powerful, unifying force our fractured society.
When one woman is deemed “more equal” than others, every woman loses.