Posted on May 7, 2019 at 9:25 AM
Last week, the Court of Arbitration for Sport rejected an appeal by South African runner Caster Semenya that challenged the International Association of Athletic Federation’s proposed regulations that women like her with atypically high levels of testosterone must take medication to reduce testosterone levels in order to compete in certain events.
I am sympathetic to the Court’s desire to “protect the integrity of female athletics.” In an ideal world, female athletes who have the dedication and drive to perfect their natural talents should be able to be competitive in their sport and not be overshadowed by women with significant natural advantages. The purpose of gender segregation in competition, after all, is to give female athletes a fair shot at winning and setting records; the typical male body has the capacity to be stronger and faster in part due to its naturally higher testosterone levels. (There are ways in which typical women’s bodies possess categorically competitive advantages over typical male bodies, such as in some contests of endurance or flexibility.) The Court’s ruling was based in part on a 2017 study that concluded that women with hyperandrogenism – unusually high testosterone — have an advantage over other women in certain track events. The study, which was funded by the IAAF, makes a strong case for leveling the playing field by mandating that athletes like Semenya reduce their testosterone to make it comparable to that of their competitors.
But I am troubled by the precedent this sets. I’m not concerned about the suggestion that Caster and similar athletes have to change their bodies to remain competitive; changing one’s body is often a natural result of the dedicated training athletes do to perfect their sport. I’m concerned that the ruling signals that it is necessary for some athletes to diminish factors of their physical makeup that positively contribute to their athletic performance; that Semenya and similar athletes will have to lower their natural levels of steroid production in order to remain eligible for competition within the bracket of their gender.
Tom Murray, president emeritus of The Hastings Center and author of Good Sport: Why Our Games Matter – And How Doping Undermines Them makes it clear: that sport should celebrate the “virtuous perfection of natural talents.” Semenya’s testosterone levels confer an athletic advantage, but so do Simone Biles’ muscular build, Katie Ledecky’s long wingspan, and Michael Phelps’s natural low levels of lactic acid production. When these competitors enter the gym or the pool, many sportscasters acknowledge that the rest of the field is competing for second place. Like everything in sport, the dominance of these athletes is not just dedication; their natural bodies do contribute to their overall excellence. Why should Semenya have to lower what naturally gives her body an advantage, but Michael Phelps doesn’t have to take extra lactic acid, or Ledecky and Biles have to alter their natural builds?
I am reminded of Kurt Vonnegut’s dystopic short story, Harrison Bergeron. “THE YEAR WAS 2081, and everybody was finally equal,” it begins. In order to maintain equality, each person must wear handicapping devices that lower their natural abilities to match the slowest, or the dumbest, or the least talented individual in society. Ballerinas are burdened with weights and their faces are masked to not make them prettier or more talented than anyone else. This story isn’t our reality, but it points out what equality in competition should not be about: diminishing the natural talents of some to ensure fair play for all.
Since the ruling, Semenya has since said she will not take the medication to comply with these rules, which could jeopardize her athletic career. “They laugh at me Because I am Different. I Laugh at them because they’re all The same,” she tweeted. I hope no one is actually laughing at Semenya, but I believe her difference should be permitted in competition, not diminished.
Marnie Klein is The Hastings Center’s communications assistant.
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