What a difference a little over half a decade can make! When I last wrote
about South African 800 meter runner Caster Semenya, she was an 18 year old who had burst into athletic prominence by unexpectedly running the best women's time of the year. Her detractors charged she was a disguised man, cheating for glory and gold -- or at best an unnatural freak. Her father defended "his little girl." Many South Africans suspected, not unreasonably, that suspicions about her were the product of European racism.
The International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) subjected her to some kind of "gender testing" and confidential physical findings were leaked. The young girl's individual humanity was quickly overshadowed by athletic politics. In a South African magazine,
"God made me the way I am and I accept myself."
After some kind of settlement with the IAAF and other athletic bodies, she resumed competing, winning silver medals at the 2011 World Championships and the 2012 Summer Olympics, both in the 800 meters.
Meanwhile, sports scientists and the athletic authorities began to develop a more sophisticated understanding biological gender variations and of the rare, but utterly real, existence of intersex athletes. My understanding is superficial, but it seems men develop with Y chromosomes and high production of testosterone (T); women have X chromosomes and lower T levels. The amount of T is thought to account for the 10-12 percent gap between elite male and female athletic performances. At the elite level, all great athletes are freaks of nature as well as extremely disciplined practitioners of their sport, but the gap between male and female performance remains. The reason to have women-only sports is so that women get a chance to compete at all. Without such gendered competition, women's results would NEVER show up or be appreciated. Sports scientist Ross Tucker
We have a separate category for women because without it, no women would even make the Olympic Games (with the exception of equestrian). Most of the women’s world records, even doped, lie outside the top 5000 times run by men. [Paula] Radcliffe’s marathon [world record], for instance, is beaten by between 250 and 300 men per year. Without a women’s category, elite sport would be exclusively male.
Okay, but neither the IAAF nor sports science completely understands how and why testosterone aids performance. There seem to be a range of possibilities. None of this is simple. The IAAF set a standard for allowable levels of T in women athletes and required competitors who produced higher levels to suppress their T with medications or possibly surgically. (Semenya's good by not stellar results from 2010 to 2015 were achieved under this regime.) The sports journal Flotrack
explained what happened then:
...in 2015 ... Indian sprinter Dutee Chand went to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) -- the highest court in world sports -- and challenged the IAAF rules that regulated testosterone in hyperandrogenic women.
The case forced the IAAF to publicly defend its rules that for hyperandrogenic women to be eligible to compete as women, their testosterone levels must be below a certain mark.
The IAAF failed to convince the CAS that it had evidence supporting the T level it was demanding, so this year at the Rio Olympics, women athletes who may be intersex or otherwise not biologically gender-standard, will be competing without having to meet the lower testosterone standard.
In this "no rules" environment, many commentators expect Caster Semenya to have the fastest races of her life -- and thereby to re-ignite a terrible barrage of controversy, not grounded in either science or sports. What's changed since 2009 is that at least some sports media understand a little better that women come in many sorts. So some reports read like this:
... Semenya is a woman because she says she's a woman, was legally recognized at birth as female, treated as female, and identified as female. Nobody can dictate to Semenya what gender she is.
.. Former Olympic runner Bruce Kidd, a professor of physical education and an adviser to Chand, opposes the testosterone-limiting rule. He argues that the testosterone is natural in these women, and although men produce more of it, "there is nothing to say that testosterone is a male hormone."
"Dutee and Caster are (competing) with their own chemicals," Kidd said. "They are fully in keeping with the Olympic spirit of being true to yourself and playing without doping. So why are they being castigated for that? I think it is so unfair."
She is NOT a man. And it is enormously disrespectful to call her “it”, or “he”. Nor should any of your wrath or frustration be directed towards her. She’s running per the rules that were changed by CAS, and it is they who should shoulder the responsibility for the mess that is the women’s 800m.
Meanwhile, transgender and other non-gender-standard athletes have joined the conversation. Joanna Harper
is a medical physicist at Providence Portland Medical Center in Oregon and a competitive runner.
The transgender community is split over the question of whether or to use T or to use gender identity for eligibility for women’s sport. But if you think of me as only a trans person, then you would miss much of what is important about me. I define myself as a scientist first, an athlete second and as a transgender person thirdly, and the vast majority of scientists support the [IAAF's testosterone limiting] rules.
I would also like to relate a two-part epiphany that I had after my transition. In 2005, nine months after starting HRT, I was running 12% slower than I had run with male T levels; women run 10-12% slower than men over a wide range of distances. In 2006 I met another trans woman runner and the she had the same experience. I later discovered that, if aging is factored in, this 10-12% loss of speed is standard among trans women endurance athletes. The realization that one can take a male distance runner, make that runner hormonally female, and wind up with a female distance runner of the same relative capability was life changing for me.
... It is also unfortunate that many people will blame the medal-winning intersex athletes whose only crime is to compete with the gifts that nature gave them. The real problem is that sports need some policy governing intersex athletes and currently there is none.
... While Caster Semenya has gotten most of the media attention, she is far from the only presumably intersex athlete to have competed at a very high level in athletics. In fact two of the three medalists in the 800 meter race at the recent indoor world championships are probably intersex. It is very possible that we could see an all intersex podium in the 800 in Rio, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see as many as five intersex women in the eight-person final. There are potential intersex medalists in other running events too. The mutations that we are talking about are very rare, and these women are hugely over-represented.
... I believe that social gender should be entirely determined by self-identification. I was proud to be part of the [International Olympic Committee] panel that recommended support for gender self-identification.
I do, however, support the right of athletic federations such as the IOC or IAAF to create a de facto athletic gender by preventing those athletes who carry a large testosterone-based advantage from competing against the vast majority of women.
I would further suggest that, while it might not be a right, success in sports is one of the greatest advancements in women’s lives. If we value women’s equality, it is imperative that we protect the ability of all women to succeed in sports.
reached out to an athlete who suffered through one of the first highly publicized episodes of "sex testing" that have forced athletic governing bodies to try to understand the mutability of gender.
Maria José Martínez-Patiño refers to it as a “free-for-all.” She was the world’s most famous intersex athlete in the mid-1980s when, as an elite hurdler for Spain, so-called gender testing found that she had XY chromosomes. She soon learned that her outwardly female form hid internal testes. She lost her place on the national team, her scholarship, her fiancé, her privacy, her sense of self.
... “I had everything taken from me, but now I have regained everything and more,” she says. “I see this through the passage of time, as someone who can see both sides — both as a scientist and someone who was affected by (gender testing). … I think this is why I’m on the medical commission, because I have such a wide perspective, perhaps way more than people who have (only a) medical point of view. I believe my opinion has a heavier weight.”
She feels a bond with Semenya and Chand. “We are three different women, at different times in history, with three different perspectives,” she says. “All three of us have been stigmatized.”
Martínez-Patiño expects an “astonishing” performance from Semenya in Rio — and controversy to match it. She sees a silver lining in all this. Instead of trial by error — which is how Harper characterizes the IAAF’s and IOC’s efforts over the past three decades — Martínez-Patiño sees Rio as “trial by fire.”
She expects these Games to provide a roadmap on how to determine rules and regulations on hyperandrongenism — by showing the world how it works without regulation.
“I have a double perspective,” Martínez-Patiño says. “The rules have basically been removed. This also provides a marvelous test. It gives us a chance to leave theory aside and focus on the practical, based on what happens in Rio. There are women from more than 200 countries and it’s very difficult to establish rules that satisfy everybody. We get to see what happens when the rules are suspended. Human beings learn from good and bad mistakes. ...
As the Rio Games play out, I hope these women are listened to. This won't be easy. But these women are people and great athletes as well as test cases for evolving standards.
The heats in the women's 800 meter race begin on Wednesday, August 17.