It has been reported today that the European Court of Human Rights has ruled that the athlete Caster Semenya has been discriminated against by World Athletics.  This is an understatement as far as I am concerned…

Born as a woman, Caster has the condition of hyperandrogenism , a symptom of which is elevated levels of androgens in the blood.  According to what I have read, androgens are sex hormones, the most common of which is testosterone.  Both men and women suffer from hyperandrogenism, although it would seem that the symptoms are more marked for women due to the elevated presence of testosterone.  Why is this an issue..?

As of March 31st 2023, the World Athletics’ Eligibility Regulations for the Female Classification prevent women with elevated levels of testosterone from competing in all competitions.  (Prior to this date, such individuals were only prevented from events between 400m and a mile – as if that in itself was reasonable!)  World Athletics now requires that female athletes which World Athletics classes as having Differences of Sexual Development (DSD), are required to artificially reduce their levels of testosterone in order to compete.  Would you like to guess what the reverse criteria are for athletes wishing to compete in the male categories..?  A signed document stating their gender… nothing more than a simple piece of paper!!  So women with hyperandrogenism need to take life-changing drugs in order to compete, and men with hyperandrogenism…  nah, they’re OK.

It may be interesting to note that the position taken last year by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has stepped back from this position and now offers a different approach – one of not setting any rules at all (merely passing the buck to the individual sports’ governing bodies!!!).  So that’s alright then…

But like the title says, this is not just about discrimination for me…  the position taken by World Athletics (and to a large extent the lack of position taken by the IOC) seems to me to be an affront to the very identity of these athletes.  I would even argue that the effects of such draconian regulations reverberates across all of society.  World Athletics are essentially saying that any such person is not ‘normal’ and not a ‘woman’.

Recent years have shown that the questions of gender, trans-genderism and identity are complex and emotive issues.  The debates held in public surrounding these matters are often difficult and divisive.  Good to know then that World Athletics has solved the problem for us…  just measure the level of testosterone and you’re good to go.  Below 2.5nmol/L and you’re a female, above that, well… not.

By way of a ‘justification’ for their position, World Athletics claims “In terms of DSD regulations, World Athletics has more than ten years of research and evidence of the physical advantages that these athletes bring to the female category.”  I cannot make any claim to having any evidence or scientific awareness of the impact of testosterone on the human body; what I can argue however is that if you believe testosterone to have an impact on an athlete’s performance, then by all means create categories for testosterone levels…  but apply this rule to everyone who competes and not just women!  If medical science indicates that an advantage can be gained from having had consistently higher testosterone levels during puberty, then measure it.  But measure it for all competitors.  I don’t want to race against someone who had 10 times the level of testosterone than me at 14 – even if they are the same gender!

If we are comfortable categorising women as ‘not woman enough’ for running, then isn’t it also possible that there are male competitors out there who are ‘not male enough’ to compete in that category?  What should our approach be to them?

Like the title says, this is not a simple question of discrimination, this is scientific racism applied solely to the female gender.  This is a question of rights – in this case human rights. This is a question of a person being able to identify as themself, on their terms and not conforming to a pre-set model laid down by someone else.  I am neither doctor nor psychologist, and yet I believe that I can grasp the enormity (if only on an intellectual level) of how it must feel to have your own self-image ripped away from you by another person.  I can only imagine how it must feel to work all your life towards something, only to be told that THEY don’t think you qualify – when ostensibly the rest of society does.

What right does the World Athletics body have to tell Caster Semenya who and what she is?  What right does World Athletics have to tell anyone this?  And much as I appreciate the non-discriminatory approach being taken by the IOC…  if their approach tolerates and condones the approach taken by World Athletics then they are equally guilty.

I would ask you this…  do you think that we should allow a sporting body to define what constitutes a woman?  I’m sure that we all have differing opinions on this matter, but perhaps we can at least align behind the simple point that such a deeply important and philosophical question should not be decided by World Athletics!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *