Thursday, May 9, 2019

The on-and-off-woman

Stanley - Thursday

Last week the Court of Arbitration for Sport in Lausanne, Switzerland, handed down what to me was an awful decision. It decreed that women with testosterone over a specified level would not be able to compete in middle-distance races.

Château de Béthusy in Lausanne - home of the Court of Arbitration for Sport
 In reality, it was a ruling against a single runner, South African Caster Semenya, who is the world and Olympic record holder in the 800 metres. 

The problem is that Semenya has higher levels – naturally – of testosterone than those normally occurring in a woman. This, the International Association of Athletics Federations decreed, gives her an unfair advantage over ‘normal’ women, so she and other such women would either have to medically reduce their testosterone levels to an acceptable level or be banned from racing. The acceptable level is that below which 99% of all women fall.

Caster Semenya
Semenya appealed the ruling to the Court of Arbitration for Sport in Switzerland and late last month lost in a divided decision.

The IAAF ruling bans women whose testosterone is too high from middle-distance races, which leads to the bizarre situation that for races less than 400 metres, Semenya is classified as a woman and can compete. For 400 metres up to 1500 metres, she is classified as a non-woman and can’t compete, and for more than 1500 metres, she’s a woman again and can. 

Unlike most athletes, for whom taking performance-affecting drugs is illegal, often leading to disqualification or banning, Semenya will be banned for NOT taking performance-affecting drugs.

The problem first arose after her victory at the 2009 World Championships. The IAAF subjected her to what she described as humiliating ‘sex testing’ and banned her from competition. In mid-2010, the IAAF cleared her to return to competition. She then became Olympic champion in 2012 and 2016, and world champion in 2017.

The Court of Arbitration for Sport decision troubles me in a number of ways. 

(As an aside, I have to admit one of my immediate reactions was that this was another case of a Black woman being singled out. I wonder whether it would have happened had she been a white woman, for example.)

I have played competitive sport at pretty high levels and understand why people are concerned, particularly fellow competitors. It is not easy to accept that some people always do better than you. But I and everyone I played with just tried harder to improve. We all realised that there were some people who were more talented than we were, who would always be in the winners’ circle. But we didn’t try to get them banned.

The decision raises awkward questions: for example, what constitutes an advantage and who decides? 

In this case, the IAAF has set a limit on the level of testosterone allowed by athletes competing in women’s races. It says that a woman with sufficiently high testosterone levels has an unfair advantage, even if such levels are natural.

Semenya arrives at the hearings with her lawyer, Gregor Nott.
What is very troubling is that two medical studies that the IAAF used in coming to its conclusions in Semenya’s situation were written by internal IAAF sports scientists. External reviews of one of these papers, which had been published by the British Journal of Sports Medicine, found flaws (Read about them here). Some of the athletes’ racing times used in the paper did not exist, while others had been duplicated. With a third of the data flawed, the reviewers said the results could not be valid. The IAAF itself had to redo parts of the paper, admitting errors, raising questions about the quality of the evidence the association used to convince the court. The British Journal of Sports Medicine refused to withdraw the original article. One has to wonder whether it is a coincidence that the head of the IAAF is also British, as is one of Semenya's vocal critics, British middle-distance runner, Lynsey Sharp.

The cynic in me wonders whether the IAAF had already decided on Semenya’s fate and was needing to find ‘facts’ to justify its decision. The same report, mentioned above, also asserted that women with high testosterone levels had an unfair advantage in pole vault and hammer throw, yet these events were not part of the new rules.

People questioning the IAAF and Court of Arbitration for Sport decisions often raise the example of Michael Phelps, the phenomenal American swimmer who dominated the world scene with 28 Olympic medals. He too had physiological advantages – highly unusual arm length, foot size, and torso-to-leg ratio, as well as double-jointedness and extremely low levels of lactic-acid secretion. (Read more about it here.) Did his unusualness not generate similar results to those of Semenya? Why was he revered by his sport’s bodies and Semenya reviled? Why was he not subject to similar restrictions? Of course, it is easier to require someone change from being a non-woman to a woman than to have them shorten their arms or make their feet smaller. But they could have forced Phelps to increase his lactic acid levels. Of course, they could have just banned him to smooth the waters for other swimmers.

I want a swimming costume like that! 
All but two NBA basketball players last season were taller than 183 cms (72”). What about those short guys out there? They can’t compete because of physiological differences. But I don’t hear any clamouring to put a height limit on basketball players. 

The long and the short of it - Manute Bol (231 cms, 7' 7") and very rare short player, Muggsy Bogues (160 cms, 5' 3")
Nor do I hear anyone proposing a ban on African marathon runners, especially Africans born at high altitude, because Kenyans have won 10 of the 11 Marathon Major series, with the eleventh being won by a neighbor from Ethiopia. 

Kenya's Eliud Kipchoge - world marathon record holder 
Sebastian Coe, head of the IAAF, said at the start of the Semenya hearing: “We risk losing the next generation of female athletes, since they will see no path to success in our sport.” Did swimming lose swimmers because of Phelps? Did long-distance running lose runners because there are Kenyans? Is there any evidence that fewer women are pursuing careers in athletics because of Semenya? As far as I know, no such evidence was led. Perhaps no such evidence exists.

What does exist are complaints of women who were not winning. “These kind of people should not run with us,” said one of Semenya’s competitors, Italian runner Elisa Cusma. “For me, she is not a woman. She is a man.” 

The Court of Arbitration for Sport in its finding admitted that its ruling was discriminatory but that such discrimination was a “necessary, reasonable and proportionate means” of achieving track and field’s goal of preserving the integrity of female competition. I think it fair to ask whether the ruling is a signal as to what the IAAF will do if another athlete dominates. Will it search to find ways of hobbling that person?

I am troubled also by where this may go. What will the IAAF do if Semenya refuses to change who she is, then switches to the 5000 metres and continues to dominate? Will the rules change again? What if she does decide to lower her testosterone and continues to win? Will the IAAF change the rules again, forcing her to take more drugs?

Now that the IAAF has got its way, and Semenya is to be banned, will it continue to humiliate her by stripping her of her medals? What logic would allow it to let her keep them because when she won them she had (now decreed) unacceptable testosterone levels? On the other hand, what logic would allow it to strip her of the medals, since she won under the rules and never took performance-altering drugs?

The IAAF and the Court of Arbitration for Sport have opened a can of worms that I think will damage sport more than letting Semenya run.

One thing that has been a constant throughout this mess – Semenya’s class and dignity. Subjected to ongoing bile and racism from some spectators and competitors, as well as humiliating probing of her body, she has remained above the fray. ‘I am who I am,’ she says.

And it’s important to remember that she has worked as hard as and sacrificed as much as her fellow competitors. It’s not as though she gets off the couch, runs, and wins. It has been as long and difficult a slog for her as everyone else. It’s amazing to me that she’s been able to keep focussed midst all the distractions and to continue winning.

Semenya has 30 days in which to appeal. The appeal will be heard by the Swiss Federal Tribunal.


Upcoming Events 

A lot of familiar names in the panels below. Very lekker!

Crimefest, Bristol, England

FRIDAY, 10 MAY, 17:10 – 18:00
Sunshine Noir
* Paul Hardisty
* Barbara Nadel
* Jeffrey Siger
* Robert Wilson
Participating Moderator: Stan Trollip

SATURDAY, 11 MAY, 11:20 – 12:10
10 Year Stretch: The CrimeFest Anthology
* Peter Guttridge
* Caro Ramsay
* Zoë Sharp
* Michael Stanley (aka Stan Trollip)
Participating Moderator: Kate Ellis

Once Upon a Crime, Minneapolis

Launch of SHOOT THE BASTARDS (This is the US title for DEAD OF NIGHT)

TUESDAY, 18 JUNE, 19:00 - 21:00
Stanley will be in conversation with Kent Krueger.


  1. Thanks so much for this post. I totally agree with you and oppose the IAAF decision, which is opposed by many, including the World Medical Association.
    It further opens the door to more discrimination against Semenya and others like her.
    Billy Jean King, however, stands by Semenya and says that she has to be "her authentic self."
    I do think there is racism and anti-Africa sentiment here. When the Athletics South Africa heard this decision, they were quite angry and called it racist and sexist. The country was proud of Semenya, a world-class woman athlete.
    I fear this decision rolls back gains in society and sports for people of varied genders or gender identifies. Semenya says who she is and is calm and dignified. And for that she deserves even more respect.
    An article in the last few days in the NY Times refutes the argument about testerone being the biggest factor in running. It says there isn't evidence on this. I'll see if I can find it and link it in.
    Meanwhile, my and my friends' support and solidarity go out to Samenya. We're with her and decry the racism and sexism in this decision. I'm amazed she's weathered it so well and just keeps running. Victory to her!
    Also, one other point, Shaq O'Neill played basketball. He doesn't even have to jump. He just drops the ball in. Did anyone removed him because of his height advantage? Hell, no! He made money for those team owners, arena owners, paraphernalia franchises, food stands, etc.
    And he's popular with fans.
    I wish this backward anti-scientific stuff would stop. Dave Zirin, a noted sports commentator and writer is on Samenya's side and says all of this stuff piled up against her is altogether unscientific. (The Nation for his opinion. ) Thanks for this. I hope people read it.

  2. Here's link to article on the myth of testerone:

  3. Stan, How ridiculous! How harmful! How transparently racist. And sexist. She is not a woman??? She is a part/time woman?? She is not feminine enough to be called s woman??? ****!! (I just wrote a reuse word and erased it.). Who are these judges and whom are they trying to appease? And what traditional view of womanhood are the trying to uphold? Ugh! I am seething, as I am sure you can see.