Caster Semenya runs into bigotry 

14 May 2019
Roz Ward

The Court of Arbitration for Sport has ruled that Olympic champion athlete Caster Semenya must undergo medical treatment to reduce the levels of testosterone in her body or be banned from competing in certain athletic events.

The decision is a disgrace. It is a form of institutionalised violence that imposes an arbitrary distinction between the categories of male and female. It should be rejected as sexist and racist and resisted at every level.

Ever since Semenya began running competitively she has been targeted because of her gender presentation and performance and subjected to inhumane and abusive so-called sex-verification testing. Semenya’s response to the ruling, after easily winning the 800m Diamond League meet in Doha last week, was simple: “Hell No. No man can tell me what to do”. She will fight on.

You don’t have to be radical to object to this ruling. The World Medical Association and the United Nations have both lodged criticism of the determination. The WMA said its advice to medical professionals would be “not to implement [these] rules on classifying women athletes” on ethical grounds. Its chair, Frank Ulrich Montgomery, said that “no physician can be forced to administer these drugs, and we definitely urge our colleagues to refrain from giving hormonally active medication to athletes simply because some regulations demand it”.

A UN resolution passed in March declared that the regulations violate “international human rights norms and standards” including the rights to freedom from torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, and the right to full respect for the dignity, bodily integrity and autonomy of the person.

Even the court that made the decision admitted the ruling was “discriminatory”, but also argued such discrimination was “necessary”. Necessary for what?

On the face of it, those backing the decision argue that its purpose is to “to ensure fair and meaningful competition” and to reduce unfair natural advantage. Anyone who has ever taken part in competitive sport knows this is a fallacy. No two humans are the same. The obvious physical advantages of individuals in other cases are welcomed and celebrated.

Many commentators have pointed to the fact that white American cisgender male swimmer Michael Phelps is advantaged by his vast wingspan, double jointed ankles, and the fact he produces half the lactic acid of a typical athlete. These unusual traits have been admired and used to win him and the US a swag of gold medals. Nobody called for Phelps to be injected with extra lactic acid to let his competitors catch up.

The real motive for this public punishment of Semenya can be found in the court’s defence of its self-admitted discrimination. It wrote that it was “preserving the integrity of female athletics”. This is not new. Since the 1930s, sports highest bodies, including the International Olympic Committee, have said they want to do the same thing. In the 1960s, athletes were forced to undergo intrusive genital examinations before being allowed to compete. In the 1990s, they tried out genetic testing.

These processes are about determining and regulating the imposition of a firm line between those bodies that should be considered male, and those bodies ruled to be female. Without this physically determined line, the whole basis of gender stereotypes created and reinforced by society would be much more easily challenged. Without gender stereotypes and women’s oppression, the fabric of capitalism begins to unravel. These same structures also underpin the brutal oppression of transgender and gender diverse people.

As an individual, Semenya represents a defiant challenge to all those with an interest in maintaining gender stereotypes. Pierre Weiss, then-secretary general of the International Association of Athletics Federations, said of her in 2011: “It is clear that she is a woman but maybe not 100 percent”. What does it mean to be (or not be) 100 percent woman?

Those who have been medically diagnosed with a Difference (or “disorder”) of Sex Development – who may use the umbrella term intersex – are familiar with the assignment and enforcement of a gender category based on an assessment of particular physical characteristics. Their active rejection of the forced surgeries and hormone “treatments” justified as “corrections” to their bodies should be supported by the left and all progressives.

While oppression and discrimination continue, medical practitioners and researchers are increasingly concluding that all the particular hormonal, chromosomal and physical characteristics chosen to define “sex” exist on a spectrum. A line is then drawn at a particular arbitrary point to separate what are considered the “male” or “female” sides. While this line may move around it is always drawn.

Testosterone is one of these measures of “sex” that is based on stereotypes not science. Dr. Karkazis and Dr. Jordan-Young, authors of the forthcoming Testosterone: An Unauthorised Biography, argue that “talk about testosterone as the ‘male hormone’ has woven folklore into science, so that supposedly objective claims seemingly validate cultural beliefs about the structure of masculinity and the ‘natural’ relationship between women and men”.

Semenya tweeted, “They laugh at me because I am different. I laugh at them because they are the same”. Her refusal to back down in the face of this discrimination should be an inspiration to anyone who wants to fight gendered oppression not just in sport but across the whole of society wherever it’s imposed.

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