There’s almost no way to address the issue of hyperandrogenism in sport today in a coldly clinical manner. The politics of gender identification remain too sensitive, too complex. Yet the issue is in the spotlight once again, as legal representatives of two-time Olympic and three-time World 800-meter champion Caster Semenya of South Africa prepare to challenge a female classification rule imposed by the International Association of Athletics Federation (IAAF) before the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) in Lausanne, Switzerland today.
The IAAF rule, established in April 2018, and scheduled to be enforced beginning this November, will require female runners with naturally high testosterone levels to either race against men, or change events unless they take medication to reduce their testosterone levels. The ruling will involve athletes in events ranging from 400-meters to the mile.
In what amounts to an amicus brief, South African law professor Steve Cornelius resigned from the IAAF disciplinary tribunal on May 1st to protest the IAAF classification rule. Professor Cornelius, who was appointed to the IAAF tribunal late last year, wrote that he could not in good conscience continue to associate himself with “an organization that insists on ostracizing certain individuals, all of them female, for no reason other than being what they were born to be.”
27-year-old Caster Semenya has been dogged by the gender controversy since she won her first of three 800-meter world titles in Berlin 2009 as a teenager while winning competitions with noticeable ease for the last several years. She is currently on a 24-finals win streak in the 800, with her last loss in her specialty coming in Berlin in September 2015. She spoke out against the IAAF classification rule through her legal representatives at the Norton Rose Fulbright law firm, saying “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.”
This is not as simple an issue as performance-enhancing drug use that pertains to all athletes across the board. In fact, in what seems a massive irony, the IAAF female classification rule would officially sanction performance-restricting drug use, which begs the question, if the IAAF has no problem sanctioning performance-restricting drug use, why wouldn’t it do the same for performance-enhancing drug use, if the point is to guarantee a level playing field?
If testosterone is the separating hormone that distinguishes a man’s advantage over a woman’s in strength and power based sports – and we know that it is from how pre-pubescent girls are often faster and stronger than their male counterparts – why not have athletes of similar testosterone levels compete against one another irrespective of which gender they choose to identify with? If male-female is too broad a category designation to properly differentiate classes of athletes, why not use testosterone concentration?
In general terms, 45-year-old masters men and open division women run relatively similar times in all distances, 100 meters to the marathon. If today’s science is of such a sophisticated nature, why not utilize it to its fullest extent? At some all-comers track meets you’ll be asked to put down your expected time when you sign in, and then the races are staged based on those times rather than gender or age. Or, take a page from the Paralympics which discriminates (as opposed to being discriminatory) between levels of like abilities.
For instance, track athletes with a range of impairments who compete seated compete in sports classes T51–54. The sports classes are assigned “in terms of the muscle power that an athlete is likely to have”. Yet in regular road races there remains an unrestricted all together format except for quad v. para. Point being, there are distinctions made in terms of “muscle power that an athlete is likely to have” when staging competitions. Why can’t the same designation hold for so-called able-bodied athletes but in terms of naturally produced testosterone?
The whole purpose of a competition is to discover through the intricate calculus of talent, training, and tactics how one athlete gets to the finish line ahead of all others. It is the ineffable nature of that calculus that makes the sport intriguing. Take away the unknowable, replace it with certainty, and you’ve essentially eliminated the game.
Why don’t women just compete against men? Because we would know the result before the start. It wouldn’t constitute apples racing apples, it would be apples against oranges.
We want clear divisions in life like on Saturday morning TV westerns, black hats, and white hats. Unfortunately, life in all its complexity isn’t always that precise.