You may have heard the news last week that Caster Semenya, an Olympic gold medalist in the 800m distance, was told by the IAAF that her natural testosterone levels give her an unfair advantage. I have to admit, when I first read about this, my blood boiled.
First, I should note that I am a cis person, and I am writing my thoughts and opinions as someone with only one set of experiences. I try to listen, support, and be an ally when it comes to any topic of gender and sexuality. I do believe that the decision made by the IAAF may ultimately influence the experiences of transgender persons within the sport, even though it appears to me that these are two different issues. I also understand that the decision was not made lightly or quickly.
The IAAF argued that “if the purpose of a female category is to prevent athletes who lack that testosterone-derived advantage from having to compete against athletes who possess that testosterone-derived advantage, then it is necessarily ‘category defeating’ to permit any individuals who possess that testosterone-derived advantage to compete in that category.” Essentially, the IAAF is defining the male or female sex solely on testosterone level, versus say, chromosomes, or a combination of any other biological factors. It is not known in Semenya’s case whether she has a mixture of X and Y, or anything else about her biology. Quite honestly, her situation is so unique that it is unlikely to be an issue on a regular basis–perhaps some rare decisions such as these would be better off made case-by-case. To ask her to take a drug to decrease her natural level of testosterone is absurd, considering the drug issues within the sport. To ask her to endure side effects from a drug to change who she is in order to participate in her sport is asinine, under the inadequate set of “rules” used to define sex. We are all born with certain gifts, certain limitations, and certain bodies. Are we also going to have men who have low testosterone, who have done nothing wrong either, to take a drug to increase their levels to make them fit into the “proper” testosterone range? Are some men unlucky to have been born with low levels of this hormone? Is Semenya lucky to have been born with this extra hormone level, like another athlete with longer legs, or high VO2 max potential, or any other combination of genetic gifts that make them “elite?” I argue that this incongruity is just part of life. It is important to create a level playing field, and on that likely imperfect field, we do the best we can to achieve our dreams with the gifts, or the obstacles, we are given.
What a variety we have on this planet among humans. That variety is the essence of the beauty in this world. Every athlete, every human, is born with a unique set of biological, physical, emotional, and mental characteristics. Every athlete had their own path to become the talent that they became. Their unique self, their body and personalities, drove them to success. How they grew up, their families, their faith, their socioeconomic status, their education, their communities, are all variables that created and drove their athletic futures. These variables make it nearly impossible to have a perfectly level playing field. Certainly there must be rules to try to level that playing field, but there is a larger picture here.
Semenya is exactly who she is from birth. She was fortunate enough to have found a passion, and a talent, and a path that made her a successful professional runner. She was born with a God-given talent to run AND a special body to do it with. The IAAF is threatening to take her career from her for reasons she cannot control. Steve Mangness, author of the Passion Paradox, says on twitter “it’s okay to hold seemingly opposing thoughts” on this. More than one thing can be true. I can agree with this. Yet for me, if I cut through the complexities of this story, it really seems quite simple: Let her run.