Written by Jen Offord

Health

Contested contestant

Today is Intersex Solidarity Day, and the perfect time for Jen Offord to look at dazzling Olympian, Caster Semenya, whose achievements are amazing but whose notoriety is both unwanted and unfair.

Caster Semenya at the 2012 Games in London. Photo courtesy of Wiki Commons.

Caster Semenya at the 2012 Games in London. Photo courtesy of Wiki Commons.

It was one of the defining images of the Rio Olympics: Great Britain’s Lynsey Sharp consoles an opponent after South Africa’s Caster Semenya raced to victory in the 800 metres track event. Semenya reaches out to her competitors, her only acknowledgment a sideward glare from Sharp.

They say a picture is worth a thousand words, but in Sharp’s case, she was happy to speak for herself about the results of the race.

Semenya crossed the finish line in 1:55.28, with the silver and bronze medalists finishing at 1:56.49 and 1:56.89 respectively. Clearly there was significant variation and far more so than in the results of the men’s 800m where less than a second divided the top three finishers.

An emotional Sharp, who finished sixth and was well out of contention for a medal, told the BBC after the race: “I have tried to avoid the issue all year. You can see how emotional it all was.

“We know how each other feels. It is out of our control and how much we rely on people at the top sorting it out. The public can see how difficult it is with the change of rule, but all we can do is give it out best.”

“In 2016, it cannot be right to force anyone to undergo medical procedures to “normalise” themselves to society’s accepted standard.”

Caster Semenya burst onto the scene as an 18-year-old, winning gold at the 2009 world championships in Berlin – the first black South African woman to win a world track title. But as whispers about the athlete began to circulate thanks to beaten finalist Elisa Cusma’s sneers of “She’s a man”, news broke that Semenya had been asked to undertake gender verification testing (world athletics governing body the IAAF apparently not knowing the difference between sex and gender either. Nice one).

The IAAF’s “outing” of Semenya revealed her to be hyperandrogynous, meaning that she produces naturally high levels of testosterone. In response to the furore around Semenya’s success, the IAAF introduced a new policy that any female athlete wanting to compete must not exceed testosterone levels of 10 nanomoles per litre, which is almost three times as high as the majority of female athletes and around the lower end of the male range. Men, however, are not screened for naturally high testosterone levels that, if you’re applying the same theory, would also advantage them.

In order to compete, Semenya – and many others, for she is by no means the only hyper-androgynous female athlete – had to lower her naturally high levels of testosterone, and for a period of time her results were mixed. She was still, however, able to take home the silver medal in the 800m at the London 2012 Games – deprived of gold by Mariya Savinova,  an athlete whom the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) later recommended be banned for life for doping violations.

Semenya’s fortunes changed in 2015 when Indian sprinter Dutee Chand took on the IAAF’s hyperandrogenism rules – and won. The court of arbitration for sport (CAS) ruled there was no significant evidence to suggest that elevated testosterone levels improved female athletes’ performance and suspended the regulations until 2017, pending the provision of further evidence.

It is true that Semenya’s performance improved in the run up to the Rio games, and it would be easy for me to wax lyrical about her achievements, but it’s academic if you somehow don’t believe those achievements are rightful.

There is enormous variation in the natural attributes gifted to elite athletes. For example, Jessica Ennis-Hill who stands at 1.65m was considerably less well-equipped to take on the high jump than compatriot Katarina Johnson-Thompson, who is 1.83m tall. And that’s reflected in the results: Ennis-Hill cleared 1.89m to Johnson-Thompson’s 1.98m.

Conversely Serena Williams who is *quite good* at tennis is considerably heavier than many of her rivals, but has an extremely powerful serve. Usain Bolt is far taller than most sprinters but what he might lack at the start of a race is balanced out by the advantage of a longer stride later. You would not penalise an athlete for any other natural advantage.

“What about the disadvantages caused by Semenya’s condition? The whispers and sneers of other athletes, the adverse emotional and psychological impacts of her humiliating treatment in Berlin.”

And what about unnatural advantages? There are plenty of grey areas within the parameters of the World Anti-Doping Agency’s (WADA) Therapeutic Use Exemption system. Something certainly jars here about the apparent acceptability of Bradley Wiggins injecting a drug known for performance enhancing qualities three days before the Tour de France to compensate for a disadvantage while forcing someone with a natural advantage to suppress theirs. Isn’t the whole point of clean sport that the fittest will survive and thrive?

Consider another completely legal inequality in Olympic sport: the increasingly acknowledged concept of financial doping. Where is the level playing field between Sharp’s Team GB, whose 67 medals at Rio set them back £4.1 million a pop, while Semenya’s home country of South Africa had less than £1.9m at their disposal to spend on its preparation for the games in it’s entirety?

What about the disadvantages caused by Semenya’s condition? The whispers and sneers of other athletes, the adverse emotional and psychological impacts of her humiliating treatment in Berlin. Before you even consider the trauma of the IAAF forcing Semenya to publicly live out the process of having her sex, and indeed one of the fundamental pillars of her entire identity in the process, brought into question, are we really to believe the surrounding stigmatisation and prejudice will have had no impact on her wellbeing?

It is a thorny issue, make no mistake, but even if you don’t buy the many other arguments currently accepted by the CAS, fundamentally accept this: in 2016 it cannot be right to force anyone to undergo medical procedures to “normalise” themselves to society’s accepted standard.

@inspireajen

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Written by Jen Offord

Jen is a writer from Essex, which isn’t relevant because she lives in London, but she likes people to know it. As well as daft challenges, she likes cats, cheese and Beyonce. @inspireajen