Get Published | Subscribe | About | Write for Our Blog    

Posted on May 13, 2019 at 8:06 AM

Guest Post: Torbjörn Tännsjö, Kristian Claëson Emeritus Professor of Practical Philosophy

Statistically speaking, women perform less well than men in most sports. Their top results are 10-12 % worse than those of men. If they are to have a chance to compete at the top level, they need a protected space. At least, this has been the received wisdom among sports authorities. The example of Caster Semenya means that this policy has reached the end of the road. What has surfaced is the fact that the idea of a special protected female sphere within sports doesn’t stand up to recent knowledge within medicine and psychology. Caster Semenya is the stone that tipped the scales. The very notion of being female has been put under pressure.

The theory of science teaches us that a fruitful classification must serve an important purpose. In addition to this, the classes used should be mutually exclusive and exhaustive. Every classified individual should belong to one class only and everyone should belong to some class. Historically, we have tended to think that this is true of the classification of human beings into the classes of being female and male. We were wrong. And today it is common knowledge that we were wrong. However, the sports authorities have turned a blind eye to this knowledge.

To break it down in simple terms, there are three main ways of distinguishing between female and male. We may look at sex chromosomes, at external sex organs, or at perceived identity. It is possible to be male in terms of sex chromosomes but female in terms of both external sex organs and psychological identity. Caster Semenya gives witness to this (See Robert Johnson, ‘What No One is Telling You About Caster Semenya: She Has XY Chromosomes’, LetsRun, 2 May 2019). We know also that some individuals with female sex chromosomes (XX) and external female sex organs don’t identify as female. They seek ‘correction’ of their external sex organs. And it is the other way around with some individuals with male sex chromosomes (XY) and male external sex organs. They don’t identify as male and they seek correction of their external sex organs. Even  classification based purely on sex chromosomes is not as simple as one may think. Some individuals lack an X chromosome (X, Turner syndrome) while some have an extra X chromosome (XXY, Klinefelter). And there are other variations as well.

How should sports authorities best handle this? Should they keep turning a blind eye to these facts or should they try to face up to them?

The Semenya case, and the ruling from the Court of Arbitration in Sport (CAS) that Semenya needs to medically lower her testosterone levels if she wants to keep competing in the sporting events she excels in currently, indicates that they wish to keep turning a blind eye to the fact. This is silly. It means that they have maneuvered themselves into a position where they demand from some athletes (Semenya) that they take medication in order to reduce their capacity to excel ,while others are forbidden to use medication in order to enhance their capacity. One reason why the latter (doping) has been forbidden is with reference to the medical hazards associated with the use of medicines for non-medical purposes. But if it is dangerous to use medicine to enhance one’s capacities it is probably also dangerous to use them to lower one’s capacity. Many medical authorities have protested against the ruling from CAS on this basis, including, among others, the Swedish Medical Association. The position now adopted by CAS is stupid. There is no way that it can prevail. But is there any way to meet the challenge from Caster Semenya, if we want to give women a chance of competing and excelling in sport? There is. What is needed is to find a system of classification satisfying the following desiderata?

  1. It consists of classes that are mutually exclusive;
  2. It is complete; and
  3. It renders it possible for women to compete on equal terms with men

I will use the terms ‘women’ and ‘men’ in an ordinary loose sense (for individuals who classify as women or men an all the competing criteria, that is for the majority of human beings).

It seems to me that this should be a feasible task. Step one, then, would be to abolish the segregation between women and men. We need to find other criteria.

It is silly to focus on the distinction between women and men. It is only statistically speaking that women perform worse than men in sports. Some women perform better than most men. However, some men perform better than all women. This is what creates the problem. However, sex per se is of no importance to how an individual performs in sport. This invites the idea that one should discriminate instead on grounds of direct and causal importance to how we perform.

As a matter of fact, if we adopt a charitable interpretation of the ruling of CAS it means that they have taken a first step in this direction. But even the focus on testosterone levels is awkward. First of all, it is controversial whether natural testosterone really gives a competitive edge (see Se Katrina Karkazis and Rebecca Jordan-Young, Debating a testosterone “sex gap”, Science, 22 May 2015, about this). And, more importantly, even if it does, it does so only indirectly. What is of direct importance to how an individual performs are more mundane facts such as how big are her muscles, how well does her blood transport oxygen, how long are her legs or arms, and so forth. But then, why not focus on these directly relevant characteristics rather than on sex, testosterone, or what have you?

This is a true challenge to sports authorities, I concede that, but it is a thrilling one. And it is of note that within some sports some steps in this direction have already been taken. Think of boxing. We do not allow a boxer weighing 105 pounds to box with one weighing 200 pounds.

It is possible to build on these ideas and to construct systems of classification suited to each individual sport, allowing for women (conventionally speaking) to defeat men (again conventionally speaking). Here a lot of research is needed and should be funded.

And as an extra bonus. Today professional sport is the only place where sex discrimination is openly and shamelessly practised. Wouldn’t it be nice if one could get rid of it also in this, its very last stronghold?

Torbjörn Tännsjö
Kristian Claëson Emeritus Professor of Practical Philosophy
Department of Philosophy
Stockholm University
106 91 Stockholm

Most recent books,  Taking Life. Three Theories on the Ethics of Killing (Oxford University Press, 2015 and Setting Health-Care Priorities. What Ethical Theories Tell Us (Oxford University Press, forthcoming in June, 2019).


The article was published in Swedish by the leading Swedish Newspaper Dagens Nyheter on 9 April, 2019.

Comments are closed.