Patricia Nell Warren

Caster Semenya: Sports Authorities in Gender Gridlock

Filed By Patricia Nell Warren | January 19, 2010 10:30 AM | comments

Filed in: Entertainment, Politics, Transgender & Intersex
Tags: Caster Semenya, IAAF, South Africa, steroids, testosterone

Whenever I want to know what's up with the still-festering Caster Semenya case, I go to a South African website called "The Science of Sport." TSOS gets through the media murk to what the issues really are. It's run by two South African scientist/athletes, Ross Tucker PhD. and Jonathan Dugas, PhD. Tucker is science advisor for Runner's World SA. Ordinarily they comment about things like diet and endurance and such. This is their one big political thread. But unlike all the IAAF and SA officials who are commenting, they don't have a vested interest in this fight.

Previously the IAAF had announced that Semenya could keep her gold medal and prize money from the 800 meter run at the world championships in August 2009. Paradoxically, the IAAF hasn't yet completed their investigation of her gender. So this announcement about her medal doesn't mean that she is cleared to run again.

Yet IAAF's confidentiality rules (which were violated early in the scandal because of leaks to the media that she was being investigated) make it complicated for them to make any announcement about the results of their investigation. The media have circulated rumors that Semenya was found to have both male and female physical characteristics, including undescended testicles -- but the IAAF hasn't confirmed this. So it's gridlock time.

On 1/14, Semenya's coach announced that she would be re-launching in local SA competition, with a goal of running in European competition later in 2010. But the very next day, the IAAF and Semenya's own battery of lawyers made a counter- announcement that she is not eligible to run until the IAAF rules on her status. And IAAF isn't ruling. More gridlock.

Commenting on this gridlocked state of affairs, the New York Times said that it's "apparent how unprepared her sport was to handle cases of athletes who may have both male and female characteristics."

No kidding. Nearly half a century after the issue of gender identity was first raised in Olympic competition, and in spite of all the scientific revelations that moved the IAAF itself to stop most of the gender testing, the sports world still has no frikking idea what to do when issues involving real-life people come up. Like most of the rest of the world, it is locked into an ideological belief that gender is an either-or proposition. When it runs into the biological reality of how diverse and fluid gender can be, it just goes into meltdown and athletes' lives can be ruined. Is this not pathetic?

Questions abound. If the IAAF's standard battery of tests for determining the gender of an athlete is supposed to take "only a few weeks," why the gridlock? Why has the IAAF not come to a final decision after nearly five months?

If, as has been reported in the Guardian (UK), Semenya's testosterone level was found to be "three times higher" than normal but still within the range of what's considered "normal" for women, then why are there still issues about her testosterone level and alleged performance advantage?

At one point, last summer, there were concerns that Semenya may have been given steroids. The steroids test usually takes 24 days or so to process. So far we've heard nothing about Caster's results. Presumably the concerns have been laid to rest?

TSOS's Ross Tucker, commenting on 1/14, felt that her coach wouldn't have announced she'd run again unless he and Semenya had real intentions of moving forward. So Tucker offers this intriguing analysis of what Semenya's options might be:

Quoting Tucker:


  1. She has (or is in the process of), with the help of her lawyers, managed to cast enough doubt over the possibility that she has a performance advantage that the IAAF have to allow her to compete without any requirement for surgery or medical treatment.

  2. She has gone ahead with the surgery to remove the alleged internal testes, and now the way is clear for her to compete. The question is "when"? And this may be the debate currently holding up the announcement. We know from IAAF policy that a male can undergo sex re-assignment surgery, becoming female, and then be eligible to compete as a female after two years of hormone replacement therapy. Now, the question is, does she sit out for 2 years, or is that period shorter because she is not a "male-to-female" re-assignment?

End of quote.

If Semenya has to wait for two years, till she's 20, will that be a fatal gridlock for her career? Meanwhile, does "Science of Sport" think that the present gridlock can and will be resolved? TSOS doesn't make taboid-media-type guesses. But their full analysis is worth reading all the way through.

Bilerico readers who want to follow Semenya's tortuous situation should bookmark this page for TSOS's frequently updated reports.


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Thank you for your excellent coverage of this issue!

While I am generally reluctant to quibble over language, I'd like to suggest one correction (for future use):

Semenya's testosterone level was found to be three times higher than normal typical...

One should never presume to state what is "normal" for any group, since that inevitably forces some people into the "abnormal" category.

Your point is well-taken, and I agree with you 100 percent. However, I'm discussing a concept of what's considered "normal" for females in steroids testing for sports, and quoting from a publication (the Guardian) that reported on this. Hopefully the quotes make this clear.

I have a theory that the testing is already complete, and that they're just not releasing the results to the public, which is as it should be. Caster's been through enough already, and releasing the results would be a major violation of her privacy rights (not that the media has already done so to her). Let's hope this is the case, and quit asking ourselves "whatever happened to her?"

I am really quite confused by your article.

Sometimes, you say sex, as in male/female and in this case intersex.

Sometimes you say gender, as in man/woman, masculine/feminine.

You refer to testosterone levels--which I had thought was a sex hormone, though there are those who refer to it as a gender hormone; I guess its just like wearing a dress, no, I'm sorry, wearing pants.

Now, if there were some analysis that pointed out that the way people actually perceived physiology, like, say, more musculature, a flat chest (all secondary sex characteristics) I might understand all the gender declarations.

Are people uncomfortable that Caster Semenya is a woman? It seems so. That she doesn't have a penis? Absolutely.

Yet, I cannot see what clarity it brings to these issues--or to the ordeal Semenya continues to endure--by conflating everything to do with sex and gender into some sort of politically correct gendered melange.

I understand your concerns about the language. Part of the difficulty with this story is that the sports world uses language about these issues that is different from what you or I want to see. Some of this problem language occurs in quotes that I've used from other sources.

I use the word "gender" when discussing these issues in sports, because the issue IS about gender. It IS about where the line is drawn between the men's and women's divisions.

The "discomfort" is not over Semenya being a woman. The issue is about the women's rules as accepted by the governing bodies in international competition. The issue is whether she fits genetically within the parameters of who can compete in the women's division of track. The athletes who lodged the original complaint against her were women who got beaten by her in the 800 meter. They felt that she had an unfair advantage over them, and alleged that she is really a man, genetically, with a man's frame and a man'e strength.

Unfortunately the nice neat way that these sports authorities want to make the rules work doesn't dovetail with the complex physical and genetic reality of some athletes' natures. So Semenya has gotten caught in the middle of this perfect storm, where "who she is" is colliding with how officialdom wants the rules to work.

The testosterone issue is important, in sports, because of how testosterone levels are associated with steroids use. In the past, there have been instances of young female Olympic athletes (notably East Germans) who were so marinated in steroids by their coaches for years that they eventually developed some secondary male characteristics that stayed permanently with them after they became adults.

Some observers had a concern that Semenya's physical appearance might reflect steroids use. So a steroids test would have been routine in her case, along with other areas of investigation.

While I understand, and even sympathize, with the concerns as you have raised them--quoting sources that conflate these disparate concepts--it is very troubling because of the consequences of doing so.

Political correctness, or maybe even better, ideological correctness, has a tendency to expand into areas where it creates serious damage for the most marginalized among us.

It is certainly so much easier to go with what has evolved in 20 years to be commonsense than take a stand for truth.

There is so much talk of education from our various community(ies) but not on this point. Of course, it is more difficult for those for whom this is more a theoretical point than a lived reality.

But then, this is always the situation when it is a dominant population on the one hand, and a marginalized one on the other.

What has this to do with Semenya?

Well, like all marginalized persons, and to be intersex is one, it is clarity, not obfuscation, that will free her.

Reflecting further, I'm not convinced it is about gender, certainly not about gender alone.

If what is contentious is strength, lung capacity, muscle recharging, testosterone levels, is this the same as wearing a dress or makeup?

If it was simply a matter of Semenya wearing pants--as was reported at one point, instead of wearing women's clothes--maybe it is just gender.

I understand that, unlike some more virilized female athletes, Semenya has almost entirely refused to glam herself up--though I did see a cover of her in which there was an attempt to feminize her. That, of course, is just gender.

But if we are speaking about strength, lung capacity, muscle recharging, testosterone levels, we're not talking about what clothes Semenya is wearing. I will concede, to a degree, that we are talking about how people react to her physicality, but, at base, we are talking about her physicality.

I believe it is important to unravel the threads--we cannot acquiesce to the Butlerian declaration that sex is always already gender--or we become the oppressors.

The official issue has nothing to do with Semenya's clothes or hair styles. Already before her Berlin run, the IAAF had requested the gender test. They did this because of her breakthrough performance in July when she won the African junior championship title with a time that lopped nearly 4 seconds off her previous personal best.

At a short distance like 800 meters, 4 seconds is a lot. To the IAAF, this suggested that Semenya enjoyed some sort of unfair advantage over other female competitors.

I suspect this is preciesely the thing that has been the result of, and continuing cause of, the conflation of gender and sex.

It seems rather nonsensical to me that one would call the testing of, say, testosterone levels, a gender test.

Doing so is referring to physiology by the same term as the clothes one wears, the way one does one's hair, and whether or not one wears makeup.

I would have thought a gender test would be along the lines of, do you wear a dress (wearing pants hardly qualifies these days), what is your hair style, do you wear makeup.

To test testosterone levels, genitalia, genetic structure, musculature, breast development, would seem more accurately to reflect one's sex.

I can only repeat, that this conflation, hardly noticed by those for whom this is abstract theory, is, for those whose lived lives are governed by this, simply oppression.

I find it interesting overall that her testosterone levels are even an issue, and considered "unfair advantage". The average runner has an unfair advantage over the average person with asthma, but the reality is that we don't live in the world of Harrison Bergeron and some people are more physically suited to certain activities than others.

It's also ridiculous that when a woman has unusually high testosterone levels, she's accused of being a man and runs the risk of being prevented from competing in women's sports. But were a man to have unusually high testosterone levels (naturally occurring), he would just be an even manlier man than all the other men in the sport.

There's a reason why high testosterone levels in women athletes are a concern for sports authorities. On a daily basis, a woman's system normally produces only 1/15 the testosterone that a man's system does. If her naturally occurring t. level is significantly higher than that, it is going to result in physical changes -- not just in the larynx (deeper voice) and more body and facial hair, but also in greater muscle mass.

The muscle mass is the problem, because it gives the woman that "unfair advantage" in strength, especially in the shorter-distance running events, as well as in field events. If the woman athlete has not been using steroids, then the higher testosterone level is an indicator that, genetically speaking, she might not be what sports require to qualify for women's competition.

Personally I agree with you that these efforts to "equalize" competition are ridiculous. There are other factors (usually inherited) that give a huge advantage to certain individuals, like heart size or the ability to tolerace lactic-acid buildup. Michael Phelps' seal-like body build gave him a big advantage over other male swimmers. It's even said that men with an extra Y chromosome (XYY) are more naturally aggressive than XY men, which would give them an extra advantage in competition. Indeed, I think it's totally unfair than men are never gender-tested --only women.

But at the moment, the sports world doesn't want to go there. They are sticking to drawing the line at the XX/XY frontier, even though it doesn't work to do this, and results in cases of horrible injustice like that of Caster Semenya.

Wow, another excellent article Patricia.

Now I can imagine that feet and hand size will be scrutinized...ugh!!!!

These radicals have got to go.

My friend...continue doing your work. When the tables are turned on men...they will take a different stance.