The case of Caster Semenya raises complex questions about sex in sports

South Africa’s Caster Semenya celebrates after winning the women’s 800-meter gold medal at the Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro on Saturday, Aug. 20, 2016.
South Africa’s Caster Semenya celebrates after winning the women’s 800-meter gold medal at the Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro on Saturday, Aug. 20, 2016. AP

Caster Semenya received more cheers than stares when she ran to a convincing victory in the 800 meters at Olympic Stadium, which was a welcome change from the usual reaction she gets when she’s on the track.

South Africa’s Semenya won her first Olympic gold medal with a time of 1 minute 55.28 seconds, which didn’t come close to breaking the 33-year-old world record as many predicted but was quite fast considering the burden she carries as the athlete at the center of a debate about who is female and who is male when it comes to sports competition.

Semenya could feel spectators’ probing eyes on her as she shook hands with her opponents and pulled a fallen runner to her feet. Semenya has been scrutinized, criticized and analyzed for seven years now so she’s used to the assumption that she’s some kind of freak.

She is a great middle-distance runner but because she has been judged to look more masculine than her rivals every race becomes a test of the legitimacy of her sex. Alarmists fear that athletes such as Semenya will blur the biological line so thoroughly that we might as well cancel male and female categories and compete together in one however-you-want-to-identify-yourself free-for-all.

But what is not unusual about Semenya is that most elite athletes do have unusual physical traits — a major reason they are so much better than Average Joes in the first place. Semenya, 26, was born with naturally occurring, atypically elevated levels of testosterone in her body, a congenital condition called hyperandrogenism. Her critics say that as an “intersex” athlete, she has an unfair advantage over other women.

Michael Phelps was born with large feet, a long torso and short legs that made his body ideal for swimming. Usain Bolt’s genes gave him long legs engrained with world-class, fast-twitch muscle fibers. African runners are born and train in areas at high altitude. Most players on the Olympic basketball teams are unusually tall. Katie Ledecky has been amazingly dominant in her sport, much more than Semenya in hers. Yet no one is saying they have an unfair edge.

Semenya first made headlines when she won the world championships in dominating fashion in 2009. One of the losers complained that she had raced against a man. Semenya, then an 18-year-old from the countryside, was barred from meets for 11 months while she was subjected to a battery of sex tests.

Semenya’s case led track and field’s governing body, the IAAF, to pass a rule in 2011 limiting the level of testosterone in female athletes to 10 nanomoles per liter of blood. It was the latest in a long history of “sex tests” for female athletes ranging from humiliating inspections of private parts to swabbing for chromosomes. Females who failed the new T test would have to take hormone-suppressing drugs or have internal testes surgically removed or, if they declined to allow the IAAF to dictate what to do to their bodies, they could quit the sport.

The rule was appealed last year by sprinter Dutee Chand of India, who ran here in the preliminary heats of the 100 meters and the 400 relay and finished close to last in both. The Court of Arbitration for Sport decided in Chand’s favor, saying it was “unable to conclude that hyperandrogenic female athletes may benefit from such a significant performance advantage that it is necessary to exclude them from competing in the female category.”

The court suspended the rule and the International Olympic Committee concurred, allowing women with hyperandrogenism to compete in Rio.

Scientific research on this complex and sensitive issue acknowledges that many other factors are at play, biological and environmental, which makes it difficult to single out the effect of a hormone. Geneticists and medical ethicists have varying opinions. Athletes who resent Semenya fear certain coaches or countries might seek out hyperandrogenic women and groom them for competition. Sport has to be protected, yes, the invasion of the “half-woman” doesn’t seem to be an imminent threat.

What is clear is that sex is not a black or white question. Male vs. female falls on a spectrum. In the 21st century, gender identity is at the fore of evolving thought on who we are. Former Olympic decathlon champ Caitlyn Jenner is a woman 32 years after she won the gold medal as Bruce. Jenner has received widespread support for choosing to be true to herself.

Semenya deserves the same respect and should not be penalized and persecuted for the way she was born.

“God made me the way I am,” Semenya once said. “And I accept myself.”