fitness · Martha's Musings · racism · sexism

Link Roundup: Caster Semenya and the IAAF decision

There’s been a lot of discussion at Fit is A Feminist Issue on the recent CAS decision concerning Caster Semenya. Following our blog post yesterday, we’ve heard from a number of commenters who have helpfully shared links to stories. I thought it would be useful to look at what else has been written about Caster Semenya. If you have any other articles, commentaries etc you think will add to our understanding of the issues this decision presents regarding women in sport and the construction of “female” in modern society, please share in the comments to this post.

First, let’s look at what testosterone is and isn’t. Much has been made of the fact that Semenya has higher levels of the so called “male hormone” than usual for women. The IAAF sees this as a disadvantage to other women and this was the foundation of their argument for establishing a discriminatory policy. The New York Times has an interesting opinion piece from two researchers on what they call the myth of testosterone. I thought this quote was illuminating:

“The problem with trying to flatten athleticism into a single dimension is illustrated especially well by a 2004 study published in The Journal of Sports Sciences. The study analyzed testosterone and different types of strength among men who were elite amateur weight lifters and cyclists or physically fit non-athletes. Weight lifters had higher testosterone than cyclists and showed more explosive strength. But the cyclists, who had lower testosterone than both other groups, scored much higher than the others on “maximal workload,” an endurance type of strength. Across the three groups, there was no relationship between testosterone and explosive strength, and a negative relationship between testosterone and maximal workload. Though small, that study isn’t an outlier: Similar complex patterns of mixed, positive and negative relationships with testosterone are found throughout the literature, involving a wide range of sports.” Bottom line: there are inconsistencies in how testosterone enhances or detracts from performance in different sports.

The CBC posted a great overview focusing on the challenges researchers face in trying to establish what the effect and advantage extra testosterone offers to athletes, especially women. There is a lot of disagreement about what the advantage means, and a key part of the legal argument put forward by Semenya’s legal team was the lack of rigour used by the IAAF in setting its standards. The CBC referenced a recent editorial in the British Medical Journal that cited several problems with the IAAF’s own methodology, and most damningly they said the IAAF’s results could not be reproduced:

“… the authors noted the criticisms of an analysis commissioned by the IAAF which found that women whose serum testosterone levels were in the top third performed significantly better than women with levels in the lowest third. Those results, Tannenbaum and Bekker claim, could not be independently reproduced, and the data does not reliably mirror the source track times of athletes from the 2011 and 2013 world championships.”

Other articles in the days following the CAS decision have focused on highlighting the human rights issues arising from the decision to require Semenya to reduce her natural testosterone levels with medication. Jacqueline Doorey writes: “But as self-identity and gender politics continue to evolve, finding the science to back that up is getting harder. And the repercussions of using testosterone levels to classify athletes can test arguments around inclusion and fair competition — as well as possibly infringe on basic human rights.”

We also need to consider the history of policing women in sport. Slate has an excellent overview of Semenya’s battle with the IAAF and offers additional analysis of the background to sex testing and performance for elite women athletes. One of things I liked about the Slate post was how it captured all that Semenya has endured: “Although Semenya is not the first athlete to have her identity as a woman challenged, she has endured this obsession over her eligibility in the women’s category longer than any athlete in history. All along, she has continued to compete and excel, earning five global 800-meter championships even as she was likely reducing her testosterone levels under the former hyperandrogenism rules.” Slate sums up what commenters generally have been saying: Semenya is a target because she is female, black and successful.

Trans athlete Rachel McKinnon explains the future implications for the decision in a concise and clear interview with Newsweek. McKinnon begins with the model of femininity as thin and white and the idea that women who do not meet that ideal are not feminine enough or are not women at all. She highlights the exceptional success of Usain Bolt and how he is celebrated for his exceptionality, yet women like Semenya who have equally exceptional success are suspect and deemed not women. She also takes on the idea stated by some athletes that these policies will protect women in sport, noting that Semenya is in no way protected by this even though she is a woman.

The Economist has weighed in as well, chronicling the start of the IAAF’s campaign against women like Semenya. The Economist looks beyond the immediate concerns of Semenya to consider how the IOC will use this ruling to include not only intersex athletes but trans ones as well:

“Only a few runners will have to make immediate career choices after the court’s decision. But the precedent set by the IAAF’s ruling could affect female athletes in every sport. It is by far the most prominent and detailed ruling that the court has delivered regarding biological sex, and it is a potentially far-reaching one. From now on, the CAS will almost certainly use testosterone levels to determine who should be allowed to compete in women’s events. These tests will apply not only to intersex athletes, but also to trans women, who were born male but identify as women. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) had already introduced a testosterone limit of 10 nmol/L for trans women in all sports in 2016, replacing its previous requirement for athletes to have undergone genital-reconstruction surgery. It is now considering reducing the limit to 5 nmol/L. This rule change has not been tested at the court, but after Wednesday’s precedent it looks likely to stand.”

The Economist also highlighted an aspect not covered in some of the other posts I read: that the decision now sets a sliding scale on determining femaleness, adding an extra layer of murkiness to the whole issue. As a side note, it is worth registering to read this article as it also covers significant cases and the challenges in research related to impacts of elevated levels of hormone levels on performance including intersex and trans athletes.

It was also heartening to see that negative or limiting opinions and beliefs could be changed. The Guardian published Madeline Pape’s commentary on how she used to think high testosterone was the issue but how now, with information and consideration, she came to a different point of view. Pape was herself an internationally ranked track athlete until injury sidelined her sports career. She says:

“As a sociologist, I have now spent several years immersed in this issue, interviewing elite track-and-field stakeholders from around the world including athletes, coaches, officials, managers, team staff and media personnel. In their accounts I have seen so many echoes of my own experience in Berlin: an astounding lack of information, an absence of alternative viewpoints, a fear of the unknown, weak leadership from national and international governing bodies, and a stubborn refusal to dig a little deeper and reflect critically on where their views come from and what biases might be underlying them. The path of least resistance is to turn away from information and perspectives that might undermine one’s investment in the simplistic notion that sex is binary and testosterone is unfair (at least in women).”

The Nation contributed a stinging rebuttal of the CAS’s decision. It’s a fabulous piece of writing, and includes this gem from Katrina Karkazis, senior visiting fellow at the Global Health Justice Partnership at Yale University and one of the co-authors of the NYT piece referenced earlier: ” [This decision] endorses discrimination against women in sport and allows sports governing bodies to require medically unnecessary interventions for continued eligibility, violating women’s bodily autonomy and integrity. This neither protects nor benefits women’s sport. (…) my fear is that [the CAS decision] will foster the already circulating erroneous representations about the science of sex biology, intersex, and the relationship between testosterone and athleticism.”

These are the key articles I had time to follow up on, read and analyze this weekend. If you have others you think can add to the discussion and amplify the issues I’ve highlighted, it would be great if you would highlight them in the comments! Also helpful might be any themes you think I’ve overlooked and might be worth exploring in future posts.

3 thoughts on “Link Roundup: Caster Semenya and the IAAF decision

  1. You did such a great job with this, Martha — thank you for working this through. There was also a good “explainer” on the vox podcast this morning I found really thoughtful.

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  2. Just noting how typical it is that the IOC is now defining “females-ness” by what it is NOT, i.e. “we measure this hormone and if you have less than X amount, you must be female”.

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