Thursday, August 18, 2016

Toeing the Testosterone Line: Sex, Sports, and Semenya at the Rio Olympics

The first round of the women's Olympic 800 meter race was Wednesday. The semifinals are tonight, followed by the finals on Saturday. Caster Semenya of South Africa won her preliminary heat and placed sixth overall in round 1. She'll run in heat 3 of the semis. She is expected to advance through the semis and is favored to win gold.

In 2009 and 2010, Semenya endured a year long ban from international competition due to her elevated testosterone levels. Though she has never spoken about it publicly, the organization governing international track competition reinstated Semenya supposedly after she agreed to undergo treatment for her testosterone levels. Much was made in the media of the ban on Semenya and whether or not she was intersex, and her return to track after her reinstatement. The ban took an apparent toll on Semenya. Leading up to the 2012 Olympics, she seemed unable to repeat the success she'd had before being barred from competition. But in London, Semenya looked great in the 800 meter final. She took silver, losing to Russian runner Mariya Savinova. Savinova was one of the runners who questioned Semenya's participation in women's competition at the 2009 world track championships, just prior to Semenya's ban. Savinova later somewhat ironically admitted to doping and has now herself been banned for life from Olympic competition (she has not yet been stripped of her 2012 gold medal, but if she does, Semenya would be declared the 2012 winner). Semenya ran a fast race in London and looked so relaxed in the home stretch that some speculated she'd held back on purpose to deflect any additional scrutiny that might have come from winning gold.

Semenya is now running as fast as she ever has and assuming she makes it through the preliminary rounds and the semifinals, she's likely to win on Saturday night. NPR's Melissa Block aired a short segment on Semenya's story yesterday, with the title "The Sensitive Question of Intersex Athletes" (listen here). I'm glad NPR did the story and that the piece included multiple perspectives, but Block fell prey to common pitfalls regarding discussions of athletes and the sex binary. One is the notion that any athlete (or person) who does not fit the male/female binary is, as Block puts it, "anatomically and genetically ambiguous." But Caster Semenya's body is not "ambiguous." Her body is what it is. NPR failed to really unpack the typical assumption that it isn't "normal" for so-called male and female physical characteristics to overlap, when in fact many individuals - not just those who claim (or are assigned) the label "intersex" - have a variety of bodily characteristics we might describe as both masculine and feminine.

Semenya's ordeal is largely about testosterone, but whether or not testosterone is the thing that makes male-bodied people faster sprinters than female-bodied people is not universally agreed upon in science. Recent case in point: Dutee Chand, like Semenya, has "elevated" testosterone, but unlike Semenya, she's not a superstar in her event. After the first round of the 100 meter dash in Rio, Chand was in 50th place. She did not even make it to the semifinals. Though her time of 11.69 was not her best, even Chand's personal record of 11.24 is nowhere near the top of the field. The women's 100 meter leaders in Rio all ran under 11 seconds in the final. Elaine Thompson of Jamaica ran a 10.71 to win gold, almost an entire second (an eternity in the 100 meters) faster than Chand's 11.69. Yet Chand had to fight like hell to for her right to compete internationally. Like Semenya, she was banned from international competition in 2014 due to naturally-occurring high testosterone levels that officials worried gave her an "unfair" advantage. She too was ultimately reinstated, thankfully with enough time to still make an attempt at Olympic qualification (for more see this recent article from Out Sports).

Still, the NPR piece includes soundbites from Ross Tucker, a scholar whose work has looked closely at sex, sports, and intersex athletes, but who insists that testosterone is the "proven reason" men and women compete in different categories. Tucker affirmed recent rules for international track competition that women with "high" testosterone levels must undergo treatment that brings their testosterone below the lower limit considered "normal" for males before competing against other women.

Tucker acknowledges, like others have, of course, that testosterone is not the only thing that might give one athlete an advantage over another. Michael Phelps has an extraordinary advantage in swimming because his hands and feet are large and his wingspan freakishly long. Is that advantage "unfair"? Probably. Should men of average wingspan not be forced to compete against him because it might be impossible for them to win? What if Phelps had another biological characteristic that people associate with improved athletic performance, like naturally elevated testosterone? Would Phelps be required to bring his levels within the "normal" range in order to compete? No. Most folks would say that's as preposterous as requiring him to surgically shorten his limbs so that he can "fairly" compete with humans of average proportion. What about wealthy nations' disproportionate presence at the top of the Olympic medal tally list? Right now five of the top ten countries on the Rio medal count list are European countries with relatively small populations that shouldn't, by sheer math, be able to produce as many elite athletes as they do. Great Britain is currently second in the medal tally (behind the United States, also over-represented). Brazil is 15th on the list. Despite having a population roughly three times GB's size, Brazil has won only one fifth the number of medals that Great Britain has collected thus far. Why? The same reason that wealthier countries always win more medals than poorer countries - it takes tremendous resources and time to be a professional athlete and in countries where fewer financial supports are available to athletes, there is less guarantee of being able to make any kind of living. U.S. soccer star Alex Morgan has talked about how her father hired her a personal trainer as a teenager so she could "bulk up" a little - he worried she wouldn't be competitive at the international level without such a boost. Is that an unfair advantage? Yeah, it is. But no one's talking about it like that - no one's saying Alex Morgan is only as amazing a player as she is because she grew up rich. It might be partly true, but it will never cost Morgan her spot on the U.S. roster, even if it does cost someone else, with equal natural talent, but fewer resources, a spot. Rather, we place the focus of our preoccupation with "fairness" squarely on those "advantages" we associate with sex, a focus that has unfortunate consequences.

Our focus on "advantages" associated with sex obscures the fact that physical sex characteristics, like gender, probably exist on a spectrum much more so than in binary form. Greater understanding of nature's complicated relationship with sex categories might ease fears and harassment of athletes like Chand and Semenya, in addition to any other athlete or person who doesn't fit social or physical norms. Indeed, the brightest spot in the NPR piece was American runner (and peer of Semenya) Hazel Clark's comment towards the end calling for fairness for all athletes, including Semenya.

Finally, it places limits on female athletes. How good and how fast can male athletes like Michael Phelps or Usain Bolt be before they're "too good" or "too fast" or before the competition becomes so unfair that Phelps and Bolt must be moved into separate categories from their peers? There is no such limit. But by scrutinizing the performance of Caster Semenya and athletes like her, we put limits on all female athletes by extension. The 800 meters is a brutal race. We can never know if it's testosterone, excellent training, high pain tolerance, good muscle fibers, or just sheer guts that make Caster Semenya so good, but by saying that hormones make it "unfair" for her to compete against other women assumes that women aren't supposed to be that good. And to be clear, women are that good. Semenya has yet to break the world record in the 800 meter (though she might do just that this week). In 2009, when she was first flagged for gender tests and then banned, her fastest time was 1:55.45, a blistering pace for sure, but still slower than the times posted by Kenyan runner Pamela Jelimo on several occasions just the year before.

If the women's 800 meter record is broken this week, some people may try to cling to the old record. Semenya may be maligned in the press as "not really a woman." But women have run faster than Semenya in the past and whatever time she posts this week, future women will beat it. She is doing the thing that all elite athletes do - breaking barriers and propelling herself, and her sport, forward - really effing fast. My high school cross country and track coach used to tell us to "toe the line" before a race, as in, go up there and get your butt on the starting line. So toe the line, Caster. And then break it wide open.


first wrote about Semenya before the 2012 Summer Olympics. More recently, I included both Semenya's story and that of Indian sprinter Dutee Chand, who underwent a similar ordeal and who also competed in the Rio Olympics, in a chapter published in Teaching Sex and Gender (Springer, 2016). The book is geared towards college faculty. Link to the book and an excerpt from my article - lucky me, I'm the first chapter - is here.