Has gender verification made women's athletics into a sordid masquerade?

A victorious Caster Semenya at the Rio Olympics. (Photo: Lucy Nicholson/Reuters)

A victorious Caster Semenya at the Rio Olympics. (Photo: Lucy Nicholson/Reuters)

The female body in all its wondrous complexities has been the object of shame, ridicule, dictation and degradation since the beginnings of human culture.

To be a woman one is supposed to act in a certain way, and move and speak in a particular manner. If you don’t fall perfectly into the “female” box or fail to play the role, you are labelled — or at least questioned — about your gender.

At the International Association for Athletics Federation’s (IAAF) 2009 World Games in Berlin, Caster Semenya was called out by one of the athletes.

Semenya does not fall into a neat little box of what a woman “should look like”.  Magazines such as the New Yorker called her “breathtakingly butch” and compared her torso to an armoured chest-plate.

At the time Semenya was only 18 years of age. She came out of nowhere as one of the fastest women running mid distance, becoming the 13th-fastest woman ever to run the 800m.

She was on the road to becoming one of the world’s athletics greats until her petite racetrack competitors — who had their asses whipped by this incredible woman — cried foul. They accusedSemenya of being a man, said they could not race against her, and demanded she be tested, but not for drugs.

Her competitors wanted Semenya to prove she was woman enough to run with them. She never doped like many others who have won and shattered world records, yet her God-given body and talent were under scrutiny.

Shortly after smashing her 800m record with a personal best time of 1:55:45 and taking gold, she was dragged through all sorts of tests, to see how close she was to being a “woman”.

Each sporting body, including the South African athletics authorities, handled the situation more shockingly than the next. No one seemed to know how to respond to the questions, and most seemed to forget Semenya was simply a teenage girl who wanted to do what she loved most: running.

It was revealed by the IAAF that Semenya had been subjected to a gender verification process at home and in Berlin, where she had run. The investigation to determine her gender included endocrinologists, a gynaecologist and a psychologist.

There were massive headlines that read: “Tests show that controversial runner Caster Semenya is a woman ... and a man!” Australian newspapers said she could be forced to undergo surgery to “fix the potentially deadly condition.”

For being a woman who was different Semenya was shamed, ridiculed and harassed by the world’s media and the very authorities that were supposed to protect her.

She was subjected to the most “invasive scrutiny of the most intimate and private details” of her being. This is how she saw it; this is how she felt. But it did not stop there.

The sporting fraternity wasn’t the only one who wanted her to fit the mould; Drum magazine also jumped on the bandwagon to “feminise” the athlete.

“We turn SA’s power girl into a glamour girl — and she loves it,” screamed the headline in September of that year.

Semenya did not like it, but she took it in her stride and tried to appease the status quo and the magazine’s editor by wearing a sequenced silver dress and black tights with red nails, heels and makeup. Her usual sporty attire of the leading sneaker brands, shorts and a T-shirt apparently didn’t cut it.

Just like the women who cried foul at the starting blocks, the local magazine had prescribed what a female athlete should look like.

Based on pure speculation, it was said that Semenya has inverted testes, and had no womb or ovaries — she was not your “normal” woman.

She falls into the category of women who have a condition called hyperandrogenism. This is when a woman has a high level of testosterone, and based upon this factor — without any knowledge what the hormone does to her body, or if it is effective in any way — she was labelled and scorned.

The most startling observation is how the IAAF and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) made up the process, tests and regulations as they went along.

Prior to 2011 the federation had no regulations to deal with Semenya’s case, though she is not the first female athlete to have this condition.

In that year the federation released the regulations governing the eligibility of females with hyperandrogenism for competing in the women’s competitions.

Page after page, the set of regulations smack of how the federation has separated women with the condition, as though they are no longer women. Chapter after chapter show how little scientific and most importantly, biological research, was available for the sports federations to base their new regulations upon.

“Despite the rarity of such cases, their emergence from time to time at the highest level of women’s competition in athletics has proved to be controversial, since the individuals concerned often display masculine traits and have an uncommon athletic capacity in relation to their fellow female competitors,” reads the regulations’ preface.

“An acknowledgement that females with hyperandrogenism may compete in women’s competition in athletics, subject to compliance with IAAF Rules and Regulations.”

Semenya’s situation, handled in the worst way, was ultimately the test case for the IAAF’s testosterone level definition.  After investigating what the “acceptable” levels of testosterone in women are, the federation set the limit at 10 nmol/L.

This was allegedly based on a study done of all the women competing in the World Championships, where it was found that 99% of the female athletes at those competitions had testosterone levels below 3.08 nmol/L.

However another study, “Endocrine profiles in 693 elite athletes in the post competition setting” published in 2014, found that while a small number of female athletes had higher testosterone levels, it also showed how at least 16% of male elite athletes had low testosterone levels.

“165% of men had low testosterone levels, whereas 137% of women had high levels, with complete overlap between the sexes,” reads the report.

Just to show how sadly stubborn and prejudiced the federation and committee are, they refused the testosterone data from this study because of its emphasis on the apparent overlap between the male and female.

They seem to be saying: “Men are men and women are women, it’s unfortunate for you if you don’t fall into these boxes.”

Furthermore the authors of the study noted that the IOC’s definition of a woman as one with “normal” testosterone levels was untenable. At best, the regulations of the IAAF and the IOC are based on insufficiently tested science, which perpetuates prejudice against women.

Silvia Camporesi, a bioethicist lecturing at King’s College in London, believes that the IAAF regulations are complete “bullshit”.

“What the IAAF was trying to do was to find characteristics to discern between men and women, to ensure a level playing field.

“The answer to who is a man and who is a woman is not to be found in science, because it is complicated — we do have a continuum between men and women in biology,” she said.

On numerous occasions the IAAF said that the only reason they were so focused on lowering testosterone levels in women who have been diagnosed with hyperandrogenism was for the “protection” of other female athletes.

This is wrong because there are many conditions that may lead you to having a higher level of testosterone, including polycystic ovary syndrome, created by an imbalance in the hormones that causes the ovaries to produce extraordinary amounts of testosterone.

One of the key questions asked by Camperosi is how IAAF can honestly pick on testosterone, as if it is the only genetic variation in elite athletes.

“There is no level playing field in sport — there are many biological advantages that make up super-athletes,” she said.

During this time Semenya was running her worst times, coming nowhere close to her 2009 performance. After the release of the regulations it was alleged that she was forced to take testosterone supressing medication.

The IAAF and many others gave Semenya an ultimatum — for her to participate in the one thing she loves she had to look, act and run like a “woman”.

“IAAF are only picking on this condition because of how society believes a woman should look like, and according to them Caster does not fall into this category and she is running too fast. If she wasn’t running so fast people wouldn’t care, as in the case of [Dutee] Chand,” said Camperosi.

Testosterone seems to be the key to the allegations around Semenya and her magnificent running performance. But according to Camporesi, there simply isn’t enough data to show scientific causation between Semenya, her high level of testosterone, and her performance.

“There is some available data that shows that tests can provide performance enhancement, but the arbitration for sports last year July suspended the regulations as there was not enough evidence. Now the IAAF now needs to provide more evidence for their regulations to be upheld.

“It’s problematic that the court of arbitration would even say that right now there is not enough evidence to uphold the regulations, but if there was, they would reinstate that ridiculous clause,” said Camperosi.

Six years later after Semenya began to run better times again, got married and was happy, as it seemed the controversy had subsided. Then a little unknown athlete from India, who also didn’t fit the mould of what a woman should look like, decided to publicly fight the system of oppression of women.

Chand was the first Indian sprinter to reach a final at a global athletics event three years ago, and at 18 years of age she was already the national champion at the 100m and 200m.  But just like Semenya, she “failed” a hormone test and was banned. There were allegations that the sporting bodies asked her to take medication or even perform a genetically modifying operation, which she flat out refused.

She took the matter on review at the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS), arguing that she was born a female, has run as a female and won all her medals as a female. Her legal team argued that the ruling was discriminatory to women and deeply flawed.

Numerous biologists and scientists testified on Chand’s behalf, saying that there was not enough evidence for the IAAF and IOC to burden certain sportswomen with their draconian and invasive regulations.

Chand won her appeal and the IAAF “hyperandrogenism” rules were suspended for two years. The rules will be scrapped if the IAAF cannot provide new evidence.

The court urged the IAAF to create a procedure where athletes are allowed to compete in their female or male categories and should not be excluded as a “consequence of the natural and unaltered state of their body”.

CAS has expressed its concerns not only over the validity of the guidelines, but also over the lack of evidence proving the precise degree of competitive advantage that a hyperandrogenic athlete is suppose to possess.

This ruling upset many who wanted the sport to remain “pure” and women to be protected from those who have such a condition.

Ross Tucker, Professor of exercise physiology at the University of the Free State, has written dozens of articles stating how unfair it is for Semenya to compete against other female athletes because her testosterone levels have a direct impact on how fast she runs.

“Now, she is untouchable.  People will (and have said) that it’s down to her focused training, recovery from injury and so forth, but I’m not buying that.  The change has happened for an obvious reason — the restoration of [her] testosterone levels, and that is thanks to the courts — CAS, the Court of Arbitration for Sport,” he wrote on one of his blogs.

But Tucker’s articles fail to explain why Chand’s high levels of testosterone have not given her the advantage he insists upon. Though she is fast in her country, on the world stage she is only ranked 50th and what the magic hormone is supposed to build — muscle and a deeper voice — has not happened for Chand.

Another expert who believes Semenya has an unfair advantage is Joanna Harper, a medical physicist at Providence Portland Medical Center in the US, but in response to questions posed by Tucker she agreed that the regulations are “an imperfect solution to a complex problem”.

“I don’t, however, believe that in 2016 we have a better solution for the problem of determining who should be allowed to compete in women’s sport. Furthermore, I believe that billions of potential female athletes deserve the right to compete with some semblance of a level playing field, and that requiring all women to compete within a given testosterone range is the best way we currently have to create such a playing field,” said Harper.

The IAAF and IOC have in the past few years used Semenya as a guinea pig, tweaking their regulations as they go along to best fit the scientific data they have at hand.

It is not fair or justifiable to continue prejudicing Semenya when it is widely agreed that there is a problem with the current regulations, and there is not enough scientific evidence to cast Caster out of the sporting world because she does not fit the usual profile.

Former 800m elite Australian athlete Madeleine Pape, who lost against Semenya in 2009, believes there’s no such a thing as a “level playing field” — athletes compete with many advantages, from superior aerobic capacity through to accessing the best training facilities.

Pape identifies herself as a “passionate advocate of gender equality in sport” and argues against the “hyperandrogenism” regulations. She believes that regulations based on flawed science are simply used to disqualify female athletes and to “uphold the dominant gender stereotypes”. 

Caster Semenya is only out of many women who have found themselves in the middle a sordid masquerade, with sporting bodies pushing their own gender verification agendas. Women must play the part, and if they don’t, humiliation will be visited upon them.

Athandiwe Saba

Athandiwe Saba

Athandiwe Saba is a multi award-winning journalist who is passionate about data, human interest issues, governance and everything that isn’t on social media. She is an author, an avid reader and trying to find the answer to the perfect balance between investigative journalism, online audiences and the decline in newspaper sales. It’s a rough world and a rewarding profession. Read more from Athandiwe Saba

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