/ 11 May 2018

Semenya and the ethics of luck

As chance would have it: Caster Semenya
As chance would have it: Caster Semenya

I wish I was a little bit taller. I wish I was better at mathematics. I wish I could sing. I wish my body responded more effectively to exercise. But no such luck for me. I have to work with what nature has given me and, with a combination of effort and environmental luck, I can, at best, aim to do as well as possible given my genetic make-up. It is what it is.

I have been thinking about the ethical implications of genetic luck over the past few weeks while the irrational responses to the brilliance of Caster Semenya continues unabated.

Given that nature distributes talents randomly and unequally within the human population, how should we think about competition, especially in competitive and professional sport? What truly do we mean by “fair competition” or “a level playing field”?

We need to slay the myth that competition can be genuinely and maximally fair. We cannot fiddle with the genetic differences between individuals and that implies an inherent lack of level playing fields.

We do not stop athletes from competing in professional sport on account of superior biological propensity to sporting brilliance. We accept it as a fair advantage to be endowed with genes superior to your competitors.

In a sporting code like chess, for example, one thinks of uniquely gifted athletes such as Bobby Fischer and Garry Kasparov. They are, in the history of the sport, in a league of their own.

There have been countless otherbrilliant chess players, including world chess champions and super-grandmasters, whom chess nerds have admired and studied for ages and failed to mimic successfully.

But no one ever thought that Fischer or Kasparov should play chess against their opponents with an imposed penalty such as, say, starting their games with only four pawns instead of the regulation eight.

The thought of setting up a world championship title match between Kasparov and someone like Britain’s Nigel Short by giving Kasparov a handicap is preposterous.

We simply accept that part of the thrill of watching lesser mortals play Kasparov is to see whether anyone can succeed in scoring a draw, let alone a win or two. We cannot conceive of the possibility of Kasparov losing a match until the next rare genetic freak comes along and shows up yesteryear’s unbeatable hero.

This is true across all competitive activities. I did better than my classmates at maths Olympiads but I was way too weak at maths to ever stand a chance of going past the second round, let alone making the South African maths Olympiad team. I simply lacked the capability to be competent at maths beyond a certain level. I might have scored an A for matric higher grade but I had to drop out of second-year maths at university because I had reached my ceiling of mathematical competency, settling for law and philosophy instead, disciplines that I enjoyed and excelled at.

No one would suggest that my competitors in a school maths Olympiad should not have been allowed to compete because their genetic luck meant they had an unfair advantage over us lesser mortals.

It’s simply tough luck that in a race you enter you have to overcome inferior genetic profiles to beat the biological odds against you, somehow. We accept this to be so because we cannot undo the random distribution of talents of biology.

Semenya, like a Kasparov, has been given, randomly, a body that can do things that other bodies cannot do. That is sheer genetic luck.

It is not a reasonable basis to disqualify her from competing with other women and it is not a reasonable basis to deliberately and artificially reduce the effect of her superior biological make-up.

We watch others take her on and, as spectators, with popcorn in hand, we wait to see who might come along among the lesser mortals and defy the biological odds to beat her despite her natural talent.

So any attempt to reduce her testosterone levels is akin to asking Kasparov to remove a piece from his starting position before he plays another grandmaster.

In other words, it’s counterintuitive and inconsistent with what we routinely accept about how luck features in competitive sport, and therefore a grossly unfair intervention in sport by the regulatory authorities.

It is also curious how the discussion about Semenya conveniently focuses only on her body as though your biological make-up alone determines your chances of winning a competition or dominating a sport.

There is a lot of nonbiological luck that can also heavily influence sporting success. We accept even these as fair obstacles that the unlucky ones have to overcome somehow.

Soviet Russia is an instructive historical example. It is no coincidence that the majority of the world’s professional chess players are Russian. The state invested heavily in chess schools and training programmes. It was determined to show up the West by dominating the sport.

The same was true about much of their investment in the 20th century in sporting codes such asgymnastics and even in art forms like classical music. It would be preposterous to claim that Russians are innately more suited to chess than, say, Africans. But many Russian athletes were beneficiaries of the geopolitical dynamics of the Cold War era. In pursuit of jingoistic ends on the world stage, Soviet Russia threw every available resource at athletes just to stop Americans from beating them.

Where you are born is not up to you. It is an accident of biography. But where you are born can be a critical determinant of how likely you are to develop your innate potential. If you’re born into the “wrong” region, country or family, even good genes can mean very little.

But we do not think of ways to reduce the resource advantages of athletes from the Global North at international sporting events such as the Olympics. We take it as tough luck that many athletes from the Global South who go to an international event have to overcome the disadvantages of having fewer resources than their counterparts elsewhere when preparing for international competition.

Ironically, Semenya has many nonbiological disadvantages that many of her competitors do not have. She grew up in poverty. She did not have access to excellent facilities and world-class coaching as a child.

She also has to deal with the emotional and psychosocial pain of being constantly “othered” because her body doesn’t look like our idea of what a woman is supposed to look and sound like. Many of us would be forgiven for developing mental illness in the face of such relentless public dissection of our body. But Semenya does not get sympathy from her haters for the obstacles she has had to overcome that were not of her making. But they hate her for biological luck.

How do you subtract Semenya’s nonbiological disadvantages from all her biological advantages?It’s a silly question precisely because we do not move through the world as human expressions of mathematical equations to be solved for “fair play”.

Professional athletes are simply expected to work with all their combined advantages and disadvantages, both biological and non-biological, and compete as best they can.

The only reason Semenya is expected to feel guilty about her body is because of politics within the International Association of Athletics Federation. Someone is simply jealous of her brilliance and finding spurious justifications to reduce her domination. It is unfair and mad.

Finally, someone may ask: “But why do we separate men and women, Eusebius, if we do not care for some notion of fair competition?”

That is true. We should ask whether it makes sense at all to make this distinction in all sporting codes. It’s not obvious that we are right just because we have always persisted with gendered classification.

I don’t have a definitive view on this matter. But I think we can agree that, just because men and women compete separately in professional sport, it does not mean that further fiddling with the make-up of the respective groups of competitors is fair.

Let Semenya enjoy her biological luck just as she has to overcome her nonbiological obstacles. It’s called life.