Semenya has been making it look easy

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.




  1. We have entered into a new age of sport. I don’t know what the future will hold but the way the world works you can’t really go back … can you?

  2. Other sports like boxing, wrestling, MMA, and weight lifting have weight classes in recognition that we’re not all on a level playing field for competition based on physical attributes. Instead of weight, why not use testosterone and other hormonal levels to define the classes of competition? Athletes have some control over their weight but within some genetically predetermined range. Same thing for testosterone level. The challenge of course would be defining the t-level classes and enforcement…

    1. Samuka,

      Good observation. It is evident that the old and simple male-female classifications are mo longer operable. Now it’s up to the governing body to earn its keep and legislate a proper competitive landscape. Thanks for reading and responding. Toni

  3. This is a “real can of worms”, Toni.

    I am just a simple midwestern farm boy but we never did have to deal with hyperandrogenism in any human beings that I knew about nor did we experience it with animals on the farm… whether it be cattle, hogs, sheep, goats, cats or dogs. If it happened, I just never heard about it.

    But, we did hear every once in a great while of the instance of “genetic freaks of nature” like a calf or kitten that had two heads or something like that. And, In nature… as well as on the farm… such genetic anomalies usually did not survive very long. Nature has its way of policing itself to some degree…or as some faith filled people believe… that God has a way of taking care of his own mistakes…and it is just nature’s balancing act..

    I was very disappointed when CAS ruled against the IAAF’s old rules which required Caster to have either surgical or chemical intervention to lower her testosterone levels to that of a “normal” woman. She was not a “world beater” under the old rules but still very competitive. When CAS had the rules temporarily suspended… look what happened! Not only did Caster win the 2016 Olympic Games 800 with ease… but 2nd and 3rd place also were filled by two other hyperandrogenism athletes. The first “true woman” in the 2016 Olympic 800 was Canada’s Bishop in 4th place. If anyone doesn’t think that high T levels don’t make a huge competitive difference…. then just review that one race!

    Why should we bother to enforce PED rules and regs on the other men and women at all…. if we allow the hyperandrogenism women to have such a clear and unfair competitive advantage? The only true fair solution to this dilemma is to either chemically reduce the T levels in the hyperandrogenism athletes or to give them their own race against each other…..anything else would not be a level playing field. Is it worth destroying the integrity of our beloved sport for a human sample exception of less than .001%? Even taking the righteousness of non-discriminatory gender practices into consideration? Again, common sense pragmaticism has always been the hallmark of us midwestern farm folk. I would hope that CAS, IOC, and the IAAF will give that perspective a chance.

  4. Now that we’ve had years to retreat, rethink and now react, I’m backing the IAAF rule. My knee jerk response years ago when this first came to light was to say, “Hey, she kind of got a raw deal being born this way, it can’t make for an easy life, let’s cut her some slack.” Similar to the backlash against some of these runners who are putting up incredible times with high tech prosthetics. Originally, I thought, “Yeah right, this guy has only 1 leg and we are claiming he has an advantage?!” But as we see the incredible advancements made with these ‘blade runners’, I realize there is a case to be made that perhaps it may not be a level playing field. Toni, I thought your analogy with how Special Olympics and Paralympics have so many different classifications was a good illustration of how we need to approach this.

    1. Thanks, Kevin. No one is blaming Caster for being who she is, but that doesn’t alter the imbalance that exists. It was like when older Kenyans came to the U.S. on college scholarships to race against American teens. It represented a natural imbalance that was eventually recognized, addressed and corrected by the NCAA. This testosterone imbalance suggests a similar correction as the racing evidence is clear and undeniable.

      I jokingly suggested that Ajee Wilson and the other international 800-meter women just stand still at the start line for five seconds after the gun goes off, while Caster and the other high testosterone types take off. Then, after the gap has been established, have their own competition, so they and the crowd can witness apples v. apples and oranges v. oranges.

      1. Toni:

        I was racing in the NCAA level when the “overage foreign athlete” maybe reached it’s peak abuse levels in the mid to late 1970’s. (Steve Prefontaine would not have had the dominant and legendary compeitive record in college… had he been even just 2-4 years younger, trust me on that!) Shortly thereafter, the NCAA started putting age limits on incoming freshman unless they had either just gotten out of the military or were Mormon and had just gotten back from their 2-year “religious mission.” The trouble is that all the coaches and athletes had to do was to declare that the athletes were younger than the threshold. And, in Kenya and other countries… there were and are no birth certificates to authenticate actual age in most circumstances…and the Kenyan government authorities have proven pretty famous for simply asking the over age Kenyan athlete “well, how old do you wanna be?” along with a customary financial tip expected for such exemplary service!!! Now that we are getting more foreign immigrant athletes even down as low as in high school cross country/track….the high school class and age marks are starting to get pretty skeptical in my mind. Age…and higher testosterone DOES make a difference.

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