Joanne O’Riordan: Semenya now facing the race of her life
CAS has the unenviable task of setting a precedent on intersexuality
Caster Semenya: the IAAF plans to argue that Olympic women’s 800m champion Caster Semenya should be classified as a “biological male”. Photograph: Saeed Khan/AFP/Getty
Sports, sex, gender, biology and the case of Caster Semenya.
Back when I entered my studies into the world of criminality, we had a class on gender, sex and crime. The lecturer spoke about social theories, and the general consensus was sex is biology, as in how you are made up, and gender is a social construct. It’s a lot to take in just one hour.
When I was in South Africa about four years ago, I was told about their high -achieving athletes. Seeing me as the limbless girl, they’d often ask me about Oscar Pistorius and then move onto Caster Semenya. She came from an area they called Limpopo, which means the middle of nowhere.
The middle of nowhere is located along the border with Botswana, Zimbabwe, and Mozambique. The people don’t have cars or running water, they live in small brick and mud-and-dung houses. Some 97 per cent of the population are black Africans who make just less than 1,000 rand per month – that’s just about €60.
But the reigning 800 metre world champion and Commonwealth gold medal winner in 1,500m hails from an athletic club based in the middle of nowhere. The runners are usually barefoot, getting cut and scratched from the brambles and thistles that have overgrown their track. But the up and coming superstars all want to be like one athlete – their hero, Caster.
Semenya now finds herself in the race of her life. The CAS has the unenviable task of setting a precedent on intersexuality and athletics and finding a middle ground on fairness and equality.
Flashback to the 800m Olympic final in Rio. While Semenya always faced intense scrutiny from the IAAF and reporters and media outlets, this, admittedly, was the first time I came to see her sheer speed and strong running.
She won 800m gold and second place was not decided until a full second after Semenya crossed the line. Burundi’s Francine Niyonsabahome claimed that silver medal, while Kenya’s Margaret Wambui captured the bronze. Both athletes came under fire for also resembling Semenya.
It is rare that the runner who places fifth ended up making the headlines. Poland’s Joanna Jozwik made her feelings incredibly clear on one of sport’s most prominent stages.
“These colleagues have a very high testosterone level, similar to a male’s, which is why they look how they look and run like they run,” declared Poland’s Joanna Jzwik, who finished fifth behind Canadian Melissa Bishop.
“Bishop improved her personal best and was fourth. It’s sad, and I think she should be the gold medallist. I’m glad I’m the first European, the second white,” she added.
“On my way to the stadium I was walking behind Wambui, who is three times bigger than me. How should I feel? She has a big calf, a big foot, she makes a step like three of my steps.”
Jozwik had echoed statements made by marathon record holder Paula Radcliffe who also believed that it is unfair for girls to train for their event knowing they may not medal due to the superior genetics of rivals.
As things stand with the IOC, their testosterone policy indicates that 99 per cent of women have testosterone levels less than three nanomoles per litre. They also want to reduce the current qualifying level from 10 nanomoles per litre the five.
For Semenya and others born with high testosterone levels, that could have disastrous results, with sports scientists saying this could slow her down in her 800m events by between five to seven seconds. On top of that, people involved in athletics, both from governing levels and small clubs, must ask themselves if they feel uneasy asking women to take medication to suppress their hormone levels.
Women like Semenya are competing with testosterone levels that can be as high as 25nmol/L, which is on par with certain male athletes. But, like everything in this field, it is not as clear cut as it seems.
While articles published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine in 2017 claimed athletes like Semenya can outperform her opponents by 3 per cent, this too has been under immense scrutiny by other sports scientists who claim that between 17-32 per cent of the data was flawed.
Either way, in a month’s time CAS will make its official ruling. The CAS has the unenviable task of setting a precedent. While also upholding competitive levels in women’s sport, it also has to juggle the rights of Semenya and other DSD athletes.
Would full “inclusivity” really help the vast majority of female athletes – those who find themselves entering races only to get absolutely smashed by those who are naturally producing steroids that do give them a slight competitive edge?
No amount of science can give anyone a final answer to these questions. But even before Semenya, four intersex athletes literally gave up their gonads to be regarded eligible to compete in their sport.
As things stand the rules allow Caster Semenya to be herself and she can crush the competition while these women may never get the chance. Whatever the opinions are on both sides, one must now ask themselves what they view as a level playing field for all.