Bird’s Eye View: Blurred lines, gender discrimination in international sport

Many of us at Tufts are caught up in the various assignments, clubs and sports that allow us an opportunity to demonstrate our natural talents. Often, we take for granted the opportunity to participate in activities in which we excel. South African sprinter Caster Semenya does not have that luxury.

Semenya is a talented middle-distance runner and gold medalist in the 2016 Rio Olympics. Semenya is also an intersex individual and demonstrates elevated levels of testosterone. This condition is labeled hyperandrogenism. As an 18-year-old, Semenya underwent embarrassing chromosome testing in 2009 after she was barred from competition. Her ban lasted just a few months, but the insensitivity and injustice on behalf of sports’ governing bodies has proved more persistent.

To preclude Semenya and other athletes like her from competing, in 2011 the International Association of Athletic Federations (IAAF) imposed a testosterone-based restriction on female athletes. The Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAF) suspended the ban for two years in response to a suit brought by Indian sprinter Dutee Chand. The IAAF is pressing the issue and submitted further arguments for its position in September.

The IAAF’s approach is inconsistent with existing policies regarding naturally occurring biological differences in athletes, dangerous in that it negatively targets and portrays an already marginalized group and paternalistic for purporting to protect women’s sports from female athletes who are “too manly.”

Highlighting the hypocrisy of the IAAF is the case of Eero Mantyranta, a Finnish cross-country skier with seven Olympic medals to his name. Mantyranta “was found to have a genetic mutation that increases his hemoglobin level to about 50 percent higher than the average man’s,” The New York Times reported. The Journal of the American Medical Association found “no fundamental difference” between elevated hemoglobin and elevated testosterone.

Not that it should matter, but Semenya, despite her many achievements, is not nearly as dominant in her sport as swimmer Katie Ledecky and gymnast Simone Biles are in theirs. Neither Ledecky nor Biles have had their gender openly questioned. This suggests the criticism is about more than simply ability.

With physical features that do not conform to Western standards of beauty, Semenya is frequently accused of being too manly. These attacks are hurtful, even more so when they come from peers. Poland’s Joanna Jozwik and Great Britain’s Lynsey Sharp lobbed unfair and discriminatory comments at Semenya after she defeated them in Rio.

Self-styled defenders of women’s sports overlook the inconvenient fact that men are not investigated for elevated levels of testosterone. If the hormone provides as significant an advantage as the IAAF says it does (it doesn’t), then wouldn’t allowing men to compete with elevated levels of testosterone be similarly unfair? The greatest fear of the IAAF ban’s proponents is a “gender apocalypse” rife with male imposters competing in women’s sports. This is not a serious idea, and sports institutions infringing on personal freedom is a dangerous trend.

Athletic competition is supposed to be a celebration of human achievement. That includes everyone, an ideal the international athletic community often fails to do. Semenya is leading the way, but it’s about time the rest of the world catches up.