Don’t Punish Female Athletes for Being Too Good

The case against Caster Semenya is discriminatory and highlights the need for a deeper understanding of gender in the rule-driven world of sports.


Sophia Di Iorio

(Illustration by Sophia Di Iorio)

Bela Kirpalani, Deputy Managing Editor

On Wednesday, the highest governing body in international sports, the Court of Arbitration for Sport, said that female track athletes with naturally high levels of testosterone could not compete as women in certain major competitions like the Olympics. This landmark ruling was a crushing defeat for Caster Semenya, a mid-distance runner from South Africa and Olympic gold medalist, who has elevated levels of testosterone and had challenged the original rule limiting women’s testosterone levels. The ruling also reaffirms popular beliefs about testosterone’s implications for gender while challenging society in a time when modern culture is moving toward gender-fluidity.

As a gay black female athlete, Semenya has faced countless roadblocks along the way to achieving unprecedented success and becoming a beacon for women like her around the world. After she burst onto the scene, winning gold at the world championships in Berlin in 2009, sports officials randomly forced her to undergo a sex test and people questioned her legitimacy as a woman. 

Now, Semenya must use hormone-suppressing drugs in order to be eligible for competition on the world stage. The International Association of Athletics Federation states that most women have natural testosterone levels of 0.12 to 1.79 nanomoles per liter, while the normal male range is much higher at 7.7 to 29.4 nanomoles per liter. According to the rule upheld by the CAS on Wednesday, no female athlete can have testosterone levels higher than 5.0 nanomoles per liter and be eligible to compete.

At a time when society is deconstructing sex and gender, track and field’s world governing body has placed restrictions on who can participate in women’s sports, again drawing a harsh line and excluding certain women on the basis that they are not woman enough.

So the question arises: how do we define who belongs in women’s sports? 

The CAS and the IAAF have determined that women with naturally elevated levels of testosterone do not belong unless they medically alter their bodies to lower their levels. 

The court admitted that the restrictions it imposed were discriminatory, but that such discrimination was a “necessary, reasonable and proportionate means” to preserve the integrity of female competition in track and field, the New York Times reported. It remains to be seen how this ruling will play into the decisions of other federations in sports like women’s boxing, weightlifting and wrestling.

It is not fair to the 28-year-old, who has been forced to fight time and again over something that she was simply born with. Semenya’s story is about the ongoing efforts by sports governing bodies to develop rules that are fair to all athletes. But it’s also about what happens when an athlete — especially a black female athlete — doesn’t conform to traditional ideas of womanhood.

Many women’s sports advocates oppose the exclusion of female athletes with naturally high testosterone levels from competition. How can scientists accurately and confidently claim that having a naturally high level of testosterone is the sole cause of elevated performance when biological sex and athletic ability are both extremely complex? There’s also the question of whether it is fair to punish athletes who possess certain genetic or natural qualities that may give them an upper hand in sport.

Testosterone certainly helps athletic performance, as it builds muscle and increases the number of red blood cells. Thus, hyperandrogenic women — women with naturally high levels of testosterone — have an advantage over athletes whose testosterone is deemed normal. But everyone is born with different genetic makeups, different body types and by default, different performative advantages.

When other elite athletes like Usain Bolt, Bo Jackson and Michael Phelps seemingly transcended natural human capabilities, they were celebrated for their physical gifts. Meanwhile, Semenya just won her 30th consecutive 800-meter race, and the world is talking about whether she is woman enough to compete in the first place.

At the end of the day, Semenya is being punished for not conforming to the typical idea of a woman. She is a woman and should be allowed to compete as one without having to take drugs to alter her body’s natural production of testosterone. The IAAF and CAS did what they thought was right, but ultimately they have fallen on the wrong side of history. This decision highlights the need for a deeper understanding of gender in sports when more and more athletes are defying gender norms. The way we learn, talk and think about gender is changing, and the time will come when sports authorities will need to have a proper conversation about how all athletes — male, female, intersex, transgender, gender-nonconforming — can be treated fairly.

The Sports Girl is a weekly sports column that will feature a girl’s take on sports. Yes, a girl. Yes, on sports.

A version of this article appeared in the Monday, May 6, 2019, print edition. Email Bela Kirpalani at [email protected]