The recent decision by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) to introduce new testosterone laws which would affect the competitiveness of the two time Olympic Gold Medallist Caster Semenya, has been met with uproar from South Africa.
Semenya has had a major challenge as an athlete in the modern era, in that her unchosen biological makeup has been a target of public question and inquiry, going beyond the bounds of privacy most athletes would face. Semenya has faced scrutiny over the genetic advantages she gets from her biological condition of hyperandrogenism.
There has been a question of whether she has the right to compete with female athletes, the majority of which do not have this rare condition.
The science suggests that Semenya’s condition gives her a testosterone advantage that puts her well beyond other female athletes. According to CNN the IAAF introduced a “separate classification for athletes of Difference of Sexual Development (DSD) which will require those athletes to reduce their blood testosterone levels — and maintain those levels — if they want to compete internationally.” Athletes with DSD will have to reduce their testosterone levels below five nmol/L.
According to Sports medicine scientist Dr Shuaib Manjra speaking on 702 for Semenya, these new rules would mean she would need to “either use hormonal therapy if her levels are above the required limit or she can change the distances which she runs.” Reducing her testosterone levels could shave of five to six seconds of Semenya’s time effecting her competitiveness.
Sporting prowess is all about genes, why discriminate against intersex people
The IAAF’s decision will punish Semenya and other athletes who were born with her rare genetic disposition. This decision seems unfair in sports where genetics pretty much is a critical and essential trait for in the diverse range of competitions. The sensitive reaction we as South African have to these decision comes off the back of what we feel is a response to Semenya’s dominance in her field. The fact that Semenya is black and comes from Africa, and appears to have been the only athlete to have been subjected to the invasive and demeaning evaluations of her gender seems very suspicious. Of the 16 Gold Medallists of the Women’s 800-metre competition, only three have come from Africa, Mozambican Maria Mutola(2000 Sydney), Kenyan Pamela Jelimo (2008 Beijing) and South African Caster Semenya (2016 Rio de Janiero). Including Kelly Holmes of Great Britain (2004 Athens) and Madeline Manning of the USA (1968 Mexico City), only five of these athletes were black. The denigration of black women with regards to their femininity or qualification as women is nothing new. We have seen disparaging remarks directed at Williams sisters. So the path traversed by the IAAF is very thin, it must have been a challenging decision to make, given the reaction.
Making restrictions on unchosen genetics, for females born with certain advantages is prejudicial because the genetic differences and strengths are what give specific groups of athletes an edge. It is also these rare biological cases that once in a while produce impressive athletes such as the types of Usain Bolt and Michael Phelps. Having these genetic disadvantages and be asked to now utilise drugs to diminish once the ability to use them at the maximum can be viewed as against the spirit of competition. The IAAF might as well ask Semenya to carry weights instead of taking drugs to lower testosterone levels to meet their requirements of fair play in women’ athletics. Or maybe they should tell her to start 20 minutes behind or start 6 seconds later.
If I were to be hyperbolic in my reaction, if I have not already fallen into that, I would suggest the IAAF be consistent in its genetic discrimination and go across the board to eliminate genetic advantages to make the sports fair. What about looking at the genetic advantages people of African descent having in running events like sprinting and long distance, or the advantages those of European descent may have in swimming. According to a paper by Professor Adrian Bejan of Duke University and Dr Edward Jones of Howard University they may be a theory of why black people excel in sprinting events and whites in swimming based on the centre of gravity theory. The story of Michael Phelps is one of some unique biological advantages which won him Olympic medals.
When it comes to gender the IAAF can be accused of sending a strong message to people on what should be described as the ideal for genetic purity to compete in the IAAF. The IAAF’s counterargument could be that all they are seeking to do is ensure fairness in the sport and avoid massive consequences that could negatively impact women’s sports should people identifying as females and having the testosterone advantage start competing against the majority of women who don’t. This is a position supporting by many including Joanna Harper, a transgender women who used to compete as a man, and sports Ross Tucker who had an interesting debate on the issue on Tucker’s website. However, Semenya’s rare condition is unlikely to see a flood of people to result in such fears. In 2016 Silvia Comporesti raised the question on why Semenya’s genetic trait is singled out when “more than 200 genetic variations have been identified that provide an advantage in elite sports” according to the Journal of Sports Sciences.
Is athletics truly about fair play and a level competitive playing field?
I also question the IAAF and other people who argue about fairness and a fair playing field in athletics when beyond genetics, talent, pure hard work, another significant advantage in these massive sporting events is money. Athletes coming from different countries have varied access to training, supplements and conditioning that would allow them to reach the elite levels of sporting competition. The medal haul by nations at the 2016 Olympics is not too dissimilar to the ranking of the top ten economies. There is no call for fairness in funding. No desire to put limits or diminish the level of investment the United States and the United Kingdom channel towards their athletes.
Lastly, one important thing to understand is sports is commercial, and this has a massive influence on how some sporting bodies behave, which can raise questions of their objectivity. Country’s put in massive amounts of investment in their athletic bodies and athletes for winning athletic competitions. We have even seen how country’s like Russia have coordinated convoluted schemes for the opportunity to gain bragging rights at the international stage for their athletes. As we have seen in the cricketing world, the relative economic power and pull of a nation towards a sport can have a notable influence on how sporting bodies operate and fairly treat different countries. The influence of developed and mainly western nations over the IAAF on a decision which may negatively impact on less developed nations becomes even more critical to question.
Sinethemba Zonke is an independent political analyst and commentator based in Johannesburg
DISCLAIMER: The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of Grit Sports.