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RaceSex & Gender

caster semenya & the archaic gender ideals of sports

February 28, 2019
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The harder humanity latches onto the gender binaries that have shaped our society, the more difficult it is to account for the growing obsolescence of a world where the constructs of “male” and “female” no longer cover the full spectrum of gender identity — or performance. The frontlines of the current battle to expand our understanding of gender beyond thebinary, reside in the bathrooms of American states like North Carolina, and also the court rooms of the International Association of Athletics (IAAF), where the case of Caster Semenya, a two-time Olympic Gold-winning runner, is being fought.

Semenya is a South African Black woman born with hyper-androgyny, which results in more testosterone circulating through her system than the average female. Semenya has been forced to endure a hyper-critique about her hormonal make-up aiding her natural talents, since she began running on an international stage at the age of 18. The New York Times reported that when she competed in the 800m race at World Championships in 2009, winning by more than two seconds, a fellow competitor had said “For me, she is not a woman. She is a man,” as a means of discrediting the win. Pierre Weiss, the general secretary of the IAAF, world track and field’s governing body, even had the confidence to say, “She is a woman, but maybe not 100 percent.”

Beyond the public skepticism around Semenya’s gender, the athlete was also barred from running for months while she had to undergo tests to “determine her sex” because of an initial “testosterone policy” enacted by the IAAF in 2011. The policy, which in 2015 was suspended by the Court of Arbitration for Sport for two years, forced Semenya to defend her gender identity — an act made harder by the fact that South Africa did not have the language to account for “intersex” or “hyper-androgynous” gender identifications. Every subsequent win since her return to competition, has been mired by racism and misogyny borne from resentment at her skill; and confusion generated by people desperately trying to put her into a gender box. Semenya’s womanhood doesn’t suffice for parties who felt they were being “robbed” by her.

Both of Semenya’s Olympic Gold medals were won in 800m, the distance she currently dominates. In April 2018, the IAAF proposed a revised policy titled “Eligibility regulations for the female classification” (athletes with differences of sex development), aimed at female middle distance runners like Semenya who competes 400m, 800m and 1500m races. These new regulations were brought forth after the Court of Arbitration requested that the IAAF produce further evidence of testosterone’s direct link to the performance of women who have naturally high levels. IAAF president Sebastian Coe defended the new policy by saying that “Our evidence and data show that testosterone, either naturally produced or artificially inserted into the body, provides significant performance advantages in female athletes.”

According to the policy, female athletes have to meet the following criteria in “Restricted Events in an International Competition (or to set a world record in a Restricted Event that is not an International Competition):

(a) she must be recognized at law either as female or as intersex (or equivalent)

(b) she must reduce her blood testosterone level to below five (5) nmol/L for a continuous period of at least six months (e.g., by use of hormonal contraceptives)

(c) thereafter she must maintain her blood testosterone level below five (5) nmol/L continuously (ie: whether she is in competition or out of competition) for so long as she wishes to remain eligible.

Like many Black women in sports, Semenya’s difficulties don’t end on the track or when she wins. Her success is immediately questioned. More than just being a Black woman, she is a woman who does not present as feminine and married to another woman. Black women athletes with muscle tone have always had to endure the comparisons to men borne out of misogynoir. Speaking about the IAAF’s policy position Stanford University bioethicist Katrina Karkazis told the New York Times that Semenya was punished simply for “being too fast and supposedly too masculine” by Western standards.

Western standards. A seemingly innocuous phrase that carries unquantifiable power, influence and violence against all that do not reside within its parameters. Black bodies have suffered under the weight of “Western standards” for centuries because superiority in all facets is supposed to reside within the white body; and the Black body that disproves these standards is demonized or accused of breaking some sort of rule. Serena Williams’ strength and power is reframed as aggression and anger, making her the “victorious villain” against Maria Sharapova. Williams, with 23 Grand Slams to her name, is at the pinnacle of tennis but she “shares” an international stage with Sharapova as “rivals” when the latter only has five. Last year’s instantly infamous U.S. Open final where Williams pushed back against a referee that sought to sully her name was all the proof one needs to show that the devaluing of Black women in sport is an international pastime, and that the governing bodies of sports that are creating the rules, are in on it.

Semenya is a woman who happens to have an increased level of testosterone coursing through her blood and that drives hordes of logical and illogical individuals into essentialist heat. What does it mean to be a woman, specifically, in sport? If Caster presented herself as more feminine, would the backlash over her win —and the growing conversation on gender in sports — be this insensitive? Instead, Semenya’s case is conflated into a panic over the “end of women’s racing,” not-so-coded language painting fears of “more male imposters” enlisted by “unnamed countries” in order to win medals. It’s language that resembles the fanatical conservative bigotry of  “protecting children” from the transgender people, and the mythical lie that they are dress-wearing “male imposters.” This language matters because it sticks, and propagates the innate distrust placed on people who do not “perform gender,” or whose bodies don’t fall into the simplistic biological understanding of “x and y chromosomes.”

Fairness has always been skewed towards whiteness. It is possibly white supremacy’s biggest trick. This policy that targets a specific Black woman in a sport she dominates is supposed to ensure “fairness” while she has to undergo hormonal contraceptives that could have a variety of effects. The IAAF wants to experiment with the natural biological processes to “even a playing field” that wasn’t skewed in the first place. Olympians are exceptional athletes because exceptionalism is the point. Height is an advantage in basketball that isn’t (and can’t) be tampered with. Kenyan long-distance runners live and train at altitudes that aid in retaining more oxygen while running.

Men sure as hell aren’t being tested for abnormally high levels of testosterone because, for the demographic with the most bodily autonomy, it is understood that a naturally high occurrence of testosterone, or say, high hemoglobin in Finnish Olympic cross country skier Eero Mäntyranta, whose mutation was just considered a lucky trollop in the gene pool. In a sport that used to be dominated by Europeans, Semenya’s luck won’t read the same way because of her Black womanhood. Black success can’t exist on its own — we always have to be taking it from someone. Usually a white person.

The overreaching racist and misogynist paternalism woven into sporting structures continues the discriminatory treatment towards athletes that do not fit into archaic standards. There was a time where a woman as a whole didn’t fit into those standards, and the claim that athletes like Semenya will stop “women” from winning, is misogynist towards her and women athletes. Women deserve fair and equal treatment in all areas in life, including sports. If we can understand this (even on an intellectual level) then what is stopping us from acknowledging that the unfair treatment of transgender, non-binary and intersex people/athletes are the pressing suffrage of this moment in time? Society has been wrong before, and the IAAF is wrong now.

Exceptionalism exists in any and all body types, if it is honed. The whole point of Olympians is that they show exceptional skill in their chosen sport. How long before sport looks at itself and asks whether the binary it clings to serves the longterm development of sport? Athletes are at the core of sport. Athletes are sport. Semenya and Williams fill stadium seats, not the CEOs of athletics and tennis respectively. Semenya understands that, which is why she is currently fighting this latest policy in the Swiss Court of Arbitration for Sport. That is the reality for the exceptional Black woman – fighting to win is nothing compared to fighting to compete. Fighting to compete is nothing compared to fighting to exist. Semenya is merely fighting exist and do what she loves, as she is. Natural and all.