Caster Semenya and masculine women: The double standards behind mandate on female athletes to suppress hormones

Placing Caster Semenya in a gender category is obviously too much to ask of athletic authorities and western media, which has variably called her an intersex athlete, a hermaphrodite and a hyper-androgenic runner, betraying a general lack of understanding of and key differences between these terms.

Track star Semenya, as far as her place in the binary sporting world is concerned, is a cis-gender woman, assigned female at birth. Not that it matters, but she is also a lesbian who is married to longtime partner and middle-distance runner Violet Raseboya.

Back in 2009, South Africa’s 800m world champion – then a teenager – had caused quite a stir because her inflated testosterone levels were believed to have played a part in her unbeatable track record. “God made me the way I am, and I accept myself,” Semenya had told a South African magazine back then. “I am who I am, and I’m proud of myself.”

In 2018, Semenya moved the court for justice against an “unnecessary, unreliable and disproportionate” rule demanding she take testosterone blockers, that the bench on Wednesday upheld and described as discriminatory but necessary”.

The International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) argued “that if the purpose of the female category is to prevent athletes who lack that testosterone-derived advantage from having to compete against athletes who possess that testosterone-derived advantage, then it is necessarily ‘category defeating’ to permit any individuals who possess that testosterone-derived advantage to compete in that category.”

The majority of the arbitration panel accepted that logic.

The IAAF said in a statement that it is “grateful” for the ruling “and is pleased that the Regulations were found to be a necessary, reasonable and proportionate means of achieving the IAAF’s legitimate aim of preserving the integrity of female athletics” in the events covered by the regulations.

Here’s what happened

With two Olympic gold medals, Semenya, now 28, lost her landmark appeal 2-1 at the Court for Arbitration in Sport in Laussane, Switzerland, marking the end of a nearly yearlong battle with the IAAF, track and field’s governing body.

The IAAF rule will continue requiring all female runners with naturally-occuring high testosterone levels to take hormone suppressants to compete, despite protests that it is a blatant attempt to control women’s bodies and no one should have to alter their physiological constitution especially when some athletes like NBA star Giannis “Greek Freak” Antetokounmpo are celebrated for their genetic variations.

Qrius analyses the misogynistic double standards and debunks the accusation that the rule will help curb undue advantage in the sporting world.

All for fair competition? Not really

In 2018, the IAAF announced a new rule concerning female athletes with a condition called hyperandrogenism, which results in increased testosterone production. The IAAF decided that elevated testosterone levels give them an unfair advantage in races ranging from 400 meters to one mile and instituted a new policy. 

The IAAF regulation in question mandates women athletes with testosterone levels as high as men’s, to reduce and maintain that reduced level for at least six months to be eligible to compete in certain track and field events in international competition, including the 800m where Semenya won two gold in the 2012 and 2016 Olympics with her impressive speed.

The IAAF suggests this reduction be done by taking hormonal contraceptives, and it emphasises that surgical changes are not required. Many critics have questioned whether Semenya’s natural genetic advantage would be a legal issue had she been a white athlete.

Others have also compared this to the controversially harsh treatment Serena Williams received for expressing rage on the court at the US Open final last year, when her male counterparts have gotten away with worse behaviour.

Editor of Out Magazine, Raquel Willis, poignantly tweeted: “Black women’s bodies – continue to be demonized & restrained by white considerations of “normality.” What’s happened to Caster Semenya is why we must fight against all gender-based oppression because we’re all at risk.”

Athlete-turned-sociologist Madeline Pape who competed in the 800m against Semenya at the 2009 World Athletics Championships in Berlin, wrote “As a female athlete, I thought high testosterone was a problem. Now I realise this is an outdated and indefensible position.”

She is convinced that the verdict is scientifically wrong, “because biological sex and athletic ability are both far too complex for scientists to reduce to measures of testosterone” and ethically too, “because these regulatory efforts have always been characterised by considerable harm to the women athletes singled out for testing,” Pape writes for The Guardian.

However, retired Olympic medallists Michael Johnson and Sharron Davies believe the rule is necessary to level the playing field. Among the most vociferous defenders of the verdict is British sprinter Lynsey Sharp who, having finished sixth in the 2016 Olympics final event, faced a furious social media backlash for saying it is “difficult” to race against Semenya and hoped the rules will eventually change.

Whose bodies does it affect and how?

“I know that the IAAF’s regulations have always targeted me specifically,” Semenya said in a statement through her legal team, referring to how the world body has hounded her, at times treating her worse than athletes who were found guilty of taking part in state-sponsored systematic doping.

“For a decade, the IAAF has tried to slow me down, but this has actually made me stronger. The decision of the CAS [court] will not hold me back. I will once again rise above and continue to inspire young women and athletes in South Africa and around the world.”

One sports scientist predicted that suppressing Semenya’s testosterone levels could make her five to seven seconds slower. If she refuses to take hormone suppressants, Semenya will not be able to defend her gold title in the 800m event in the upcoming 2020 Olympics.

She is not the only one who will be affected. Semenya’s biggest rival, Burundian athlete Francine Niyonsaba recently revealed having hyperandrogenism as well, and criticised the IAAF proposal as “discrimination” in an interview with the Olympic channel.

The South African Sports Confederation and Olympic Committee decried the ruling as a witch-hunt, saying, “We maintain that the rules are ill-thought and will be a source of distress for the targeted female athletes.”

“This decision marks a massive turning point as it now redefines what a female athlete in particular is,” Natalie du Toit, head of the organisation’s athletes commission, told Associated Press. “Knowing Caster and the hard work she has put into her sport, we support all her endeavors, and we are all behind her.”

According to Reuters, Athletics South Africa which stood by Semenya in her legal battle may approach Swiss tribunal after the CAS dismissed her appeal against regulations to limit naturally-occurring testosterone levels in athletes with differences of sexual development.

How shady is the basis for this rule?

The discrepancies and practical concerns in implementing hormone suppression as a blanket rule on all track events have not eluded the IAAF nor the CAS.

The prosecutors pointed to a lack of concrete evidence that elevated testosterone gives a performance advantage for two specific distances: 1500 meters and 1 mile, which is why the panel recommended those two races be exempt from the rules until more scientific evidence is produced.

In its press release, even the court noted that the regulations are discriminatory because they impose differential treatment based on protected characteristics in that they “establish restrictions that are targeted at a subset of the female/intersex athlete population, and do not impose any equivalent restrictions on male athletes.”

As CNN reports, the debate over the rules designed to regulate testosterone levels in female athletes have revolved around what “equates to sporting fairness and potential human rights infringements.”

Endocrinologist DR Sindeep Bhana, in an interview to a South African news channel, corroborated the latter, saying the IAAF’s rule will affect Semenya beyond her sporting ability, even alter her mood and cause depression. “That’s the hormone level she was born with, that’s what she is used to,” he said offering a medical perspective to the entire controversy.

A landmark case nonetheless

Needless to say, the regulations have huge implications for India’s prolific and diverse athletic community. Besides the obvious impact of policing female bodies that aren’t feminine enough to qualify for participation, the rule can be easily exploited to normalise discrimination.

Last year, athlete and coach Santhi Soundarajan, a recipient of several medals in many tournaments including the South Asian Games, filed a harassment complaint against a male colleague with the Sports Development Authority of Tamil Nadu (SDATN), alleging that he made casteist remarks and spread rumours about her gender, saying she was not a woman and did not look like one.

But it was hyperandrogenic sprinter Dutee Chand’s landmark case in 2015 that gained international spotlight when she appealed against the IAAF’s rules at the CAS in 2015, after being forced her to miss the Commonwealth Games 2014 for failing a controversial “gender” test.

Chand, then 18, had told the New York Times that she would not conform to the pressure from coaches to undergo treatment to alter the testosterone levels in her body.

“I feel it is wrong to change your body for sport participation. I’m not changing for anyone. It is like in some societies where they used to cut off the hand of people caught stealing. I feel like this is the same kind of primitive, unethical rule. It goes too far,” she is quoted as saying.

Former editor-in-chief of Wisden India, a sports publication, Dileep Premachandran, agrees.

Speaking to Qrius, he said, “Neither Caster not Dutee asked for this. They did not choose their gender, that’s how they were raised.” He further argued that testosterone cannot be the only determining factor for excellence on track; Chand’s record does not come close to Olympic medallists Allyson Felix or Elaine Thompson’s, he explained.

When asked if Semenya should contest with men if she refuses to take blockers, Premachandran dismissed the hypothesis with a statistic: “Caster’s personal best over 800m is 1:54:25, over 8 seconds less than Sriram Singh who has held India’s national record for 42 years, broken only last year.” He also expressed sympathies for women athletes of our times who face an uphill task breaking the world records set by women in the 20th century when doping laws weren’t as stringent. “Field and track have long lost the moral high ground to penalise Caster,” whose sex development disorder (DSD) that causes elevated testosterone levels is natural and not remotely illegal, Dileep said.

Citing numerous advantages that some of the world’s celebrated athletes are born with, Premachandran then asked, “Where does this end?” If Phelps with his especially long wing- and arm-span, and Usain Bolt with his unique stride length (which enables him to finish races in just 41 strides), are celebrated because of these traits, there is no reason why Caster should have to change who she intrinsically is, he tells Qrius

Besides, he also expressed his reservations about how the rule veers into an atrocious violation of human rights. There is no scientific rationale, but all the evidence in the world suggesting that suppression of natural hormones can lead to bodily complications, Premachandran rued.

Stop policing women’s bodies

All things said and done, the bottom line is: Black and brown bodies should be able to compete without being subjected to gender and racial stereotypes that have disproportionately harmed “other” body types and consequently hindered their careers and livelihood for too long.

Scholars reflect that most of this bias stems from a lack of information, an absence of alternative viewpoints, a fear of the unknown, weak leadership from national and international governing bodies, and denial for the need to reflect critically on the biases that lead to gender binaries.

Semenya’s defeat, therefore, only goes to show how far we still have to go in understanding gender. Women with high levels of testosterone are and always will be womanly enough, and an athletic federation comprising white men who base their judgement on misinformed debates will not be able to change that.

For all the harping on natural hormones, this debate should also serve as a starting point to locate transgender bodies in the world of binary sporting, as their case for equal participation is still not favoured by sports scientists, sports associations and TERFS.

It is time we start recognising women’s bodies for what they are capable of, not limit them by what they should be.

Prarthana Mitra is a Staff Writer at Qrius

Caster SemenyaGender justiceSports