Transphobia accusations aside; IAAF’s ruling against Caster Semanya answers a big problem about the legitimacy of elite sports

Caster Semanya

Over the weekend, the Court of Arbitration for Sports (CAS) ruled that the International Association of Athletics Federations could demand that female athletes with Disorders of Sex Development (DSD) to go on hormone suppression medication to ensure their testorone are at normal levels at the time of competition. This ruling was in response to a petition by South African long distance runner Caster Semanya to overturn the law, which was first decided on in 2016 and was supposed to be instituted in 2018. Caster’s petition delayed the enforcement of the ruling and the rejection of her petition has led to public outcry that Caster is being specifically targeted for harassment because she is black and her DSD has made her physically develop in ways that aren’t considered traditionally acceptable for women.

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Here’s what we know:

  • In 2009, after Caster won her first international race, the IAAF asked Caster to take a ‘random doping test’. What Caster didn’t know was that she was actually made to take a gender test. Leonard Chuene, the president of the South African Athletics Federation later admitted to this, one of the many infractions that led to his suspension as head of the federation. This was an ethical violation of her human rights, and is something that tainted the IAAF’s decision making process as regards Caster’s right to run in specific races.
  • The science actually proves that testosterone, a drug which is produced by both cis men and women has significant benefits when it is produced in more quantities than occur naturally in women. This is especially true of intersex women.
  • There is also evidence that suggests that in the 400 metres to 1 mile races, a disproportionate amount of intersex persons, or cis-women who have DSD choose these categories to race in and have recorded a disproportionate number of wins.
  • Caster Semanya has previously been cleared to race in international races and has lost enough races to show that her growth as an elite runner cannot solely be attributed to her biological advantage.
  • This current inquisition against Caster and women with DSD was the result of a media attack instigated by Lynsey Sharp, a British runner who came 6th in 2016’s 800m Olympic final which Caster comfortably won. Hence the accusations of racism and Trans exclusionary Feminism (TERF).

As Caster’s petition is denied, it opens a lot of questions about the state of racism in Sports in general, the idea that black women are often unfairly targeted when they begin to dominate certain sports over white women (i.e Serena Williams) and the general optics of policing gender when everything we know about it keeps evolving.

But if we can step away from identity politics for a second and look at the decision itself, perhaps we can find some interesting perspectives. The objective of the IAAF as a federation is to ensure the most amount of people are given a fair playing field in athletics. Unlike Michael Phelps’ biological condition (longer arms and his body produces less lactic acid than regular bodies; lactic acid is what makes us tired), DSD occurs far too often to be totally ignored or treated like a unique condition, and it occurs in too few women for it to show the disproportionate numbers of DSD runners we have seen in the 400m to 1 mile races.  Races shorter than 400m and races longer than 1 mile are open to every runner, no matter their biological advantage so, there is an argument to be made about why DSD women are choosing this specific window.

In light of this, it stands to reason that due to the specific circumstances and the high prevalence of DSD women in these race categories, the IAAF must either create rules that ensures every woman with artificially or naturally occurring high-than-normal testosterone levels should lower their levels to qualify to race, or grant women with these conditions alternatives. But to ignore the situation altogether in light of the available data will severely damage the reputation of the IAAF and delegitimize the sport in those categories.

So what are the alternatives.

Denying DSD women the right to race is an ethical violation, even the IAAF and CAS has admitted to this, but they call it a ‘necessary’ discrimination.

There should be alternatives that allow DSD women race without altering their biology if they choose to. Hormone suppressants have side-effects we are only discovering and DSD women who do not want to use medication shouldn’t have to. That said, some groups suggest that the 400m – 1 mile races be divided to two races, one for women who fall under the testosterone levels, and an ‘Open’ race that pits women, men and DSD women against each other for the top prizes. Other groups suggest that the races in these categories be separated by testosterone levels, so this women with naturally occurring testosterone levels would be organically sorted into their own ‘class’, creating a ‘fair’ race. Both solutions will not sit well with DSD women and their supporters, but at least they will return the power to choose whether to go on hormone suppressing medication and remain in competition or not to these women.

Neither option is perfect, but it grants us all some time to find a more lasting solution that doesn’t discriminate against anyone, without delegitimizing the influence of the IAAF in these categories. We’ll have to wait and see how it all plays out.

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