Gender, Social Justice

Caster Semenya’s case is another attempt at regulating women’s bodies

The IAAF's proposed policy reflects yet another way of trying to control women’s bodies.

Caster Semenya has challenged the International Association of Athletics Federations’ proposed rules to lower testosterone levels for female athletes in a case that could impact future sport rulings for intersex and transgender women.

Semenya’s, the two-time Olympic 800-meter champion, gender has become a topic of debate and scrutiny since 2009 when she was forced to undergo a gender test to prove she was a woman. Since she is hyperandrogenous, Semenya has elevated testosterone levels that has made many question whether her testosterone levels should be altered.

In 2011, the IAAF proposed a policy that would require female athletes to reduce their testosterone levels to five nanomoles per liter in order to compete internationally at distances from 400 meters to a mile. The IAAF, however, didn’t impose this policy to other events like hammer throwing despite research showing that the event is likely to benefit more from elevated testosterone levels than the 400m, 800m, and 1200m races.

The policy would force athletes like Semenya to use hormone suppressants to help reduce their levels, in hopes to create “a level playing field” for other female athletes.

The problem is altering Semenya’s testosterone levels would be a gross human-rights violation.

The sports associations, media and society’s obsession with Semenya’s testosterone levels may well be rooted in her being simultaneously a successful, black woman.

Journalists have pointed to the ‘effortless ease’ Semenya runs with as an indicator of her unfair advantage. Yet, male runners like Usain Bolt who also run with seemingly effortless ease are praised for their physique and athleticism. On top of this, the focus of gender scrutiny has largely been directed to women of color from the global south like Semenya and Dutee Chand.

It also shouldn’t go ignored that countries like the United Kingdom pump hundreds of millions into athleticism. For the 2016 Rio Games, the UK spent $360 million on preparations, whereas most African countries like South Africa that spent less than $2.5 million, invest far less into Olympic sports The Guardian reports. The irony is that such a move from countries like the UK provides an advantage that poorer countries aren’t afforded.

The notion of changing an athlete’s natural body in order to even the playing field is ridiculous.

For one, it is a complete intrusion and violation of her body. The proposed policy assumes that one single marker provides enough to classify a person as male or female, which is not the case. Semenya has hyperandrogenism and by altering these testosterone levels would put her at greater health risks. The side effects of these interventions can be so debilitating that women may be forced to give up their career.

Hyperandrogenism is one of the hundreds of genetic variations that contributes to the success of athletes. Trying to change the natural testosterone levels of a woman is as ridiculous as trying to change someone’s height or genetic makeup, which all contribute to athletes’ success. Eero Mantyrana, a Finnish skier who dominated the sport in the 1960s had a higher red blood cell and hemoglobin count that enhanced his athletic ability. The playing field for athletes has never been completely even. And introducing policies for women with hyperandrogenism is simply another way of trying to police women and their bodies.

In response to the proposed ruling, Semenya’s lawyers released a statement in response to the IAAF’s attempts to place more regulations on female bodies.

“Ms. Semenya believes that she and other women affected by the regulations should be permitted to compete in the female category without discrimination, and celebrated for their natural talents as are all other athletes with genetic variations,” it says. “The IAAF’s regulations do not empower anyone. Rather, they represent yet another flawed and hurtful attempt to police the sex of female athletes. Ms. Semenya’s courage and perseverance in her fight to run free is an inspiration to young athletes in her home country of South Africa and around the globe.”