Elite athletes depend on natural physical gifts that endow them with various combinations of strength, balance, flexibility and speed, honed by endless hours of training. To try to give these athletes a level playing field on which to compete, sports officials examine them for signs that they have strayed into the forbidden use of unnatural substances such as steroids. But in the case of Caster Semenya, the reigning Olympic champion in the women’s 800 meter race, the rules have turned topsy-turvy.
The star runner has an unusual condition that imbues her -- naturally -- with very high levels of the hormone testosterone. That brought her afoul of the International Assn. of Athletics Federations, which proposed a rule requiring female athletes to have less than a specified level of the hormone if they wanted to compete in certain events. The rule was held off until Semenya could take her case to the Court of Arbitration for Sport, where she was turned down.
Thus Semenya will have to do something unnatural – have surgery or take hormonal contraceptives – to reduce her testosterone level if she wants to participate internationally in women’s events. But the rule, and the court’s ruling, are antithetical to the nature of elite sports – and sexist.
Semenya’s testosterone levels probably do give her a real advantage on the track. It’s easy to understand the court’s position that preserving women’s athletics as their own events, separate from men’s, is so important that women who have this very unusual physical condition must be kept from dominating the field, lest these divisions be taken over by women with hormonal differences.
Society is beginning to understand that gender is more fluid than previously believed. And this raises complicated issues in sports and other arenas.
But even if the court’s position is understandable, it is the wrong one. Semenya is a woman – no one disputes that. And she should not have to hobble the person she is or take unnecessary medications to fit a particular notion of what hormone levels are OK for a woman to have. Higher testosterone levels could help male athletes, too, but no one is talking about restricting those.
Every once in a while, people are born with a highly unusual physical characteristic that gives them a big edge over others in their field. The hypermobile gymnast who can contort in ways unimaginable to most of us. The basketball player so tall that he can dunk without jumping. It might make the competition a little less exciting when they win time after time, but we don’t – and shouldn’t -- require them to chemically or surgically alter their physical attributes so that they’re just not so darn good. Some people are born with advantages of speed, height, strength, balance – or the less natural advantages of money and location that give them access to resources and top training.