On Friday night, at the Diamond League opener in Doha, Caster Semenya won the 800 metres. Odds on, there was no shock there.
Crossing the line in a thunderbolt time of 1:54.98 was far more head-turning considering we are just taking baby steps into the year. However, that it was the South African’s 30th race win in a row, crucially, wasn’t in any way surprising.
Talent? Or something else?
The official Twitter account of the competition called that achievement “phenomenal”. But even in an era of massive marketed hyperbole in sport becoming the norm, that snagged. For really, is there anything phenomenal about Semenya’s dominance of the distance? Wouldn’t it be far more phenomenal if she wasn’t reducing the field to her and then them?
We’ll get to exactly why in a moment, but this has to be done softly, for to look at solely the athlete and not at the human being in such a case isn’t on. A delicate balance is required.
There’s been an outpouring of emotion in recent days towards Semenya and that’s all well and good. Banned going forward from anywhere between 400m and a mile due to her testosterone levels – unless she takes medication to reduce them – this has had all the feel of one of those gripping Law & Order SVU episodes. You know the ones where you end up rooting for the defendant in court as they didn’t knowingly do harm and are morally right, only the law sees it differently and ends up throwing the book at them. That’s what this is.
The problem is the road taken and methodology used to derail Semenya has muddied the waters, and has even allowed the science-for-sale brigade to flip flop with ease. But in such a situation you must do what’s most correct for the most people. Barring her does that. Thus while it’s hard to to agree with the approach, it’s harder to disagree with the outcome.
What irks though is there was a much better way to get here that removed most feeling.
A way that made this clear cut, set a definitive precedent, and removed all of the debate.
* * *
Over the weekend, comparisons have been drawn between Semenya and other athletes whose godly traits are hard for mere mortals to fathom. Michael Phelps and his lung capacity, Usain Bolt and his leg extension, Lionel Messi and his balance, Tom Brady and his visionary brain. They all have advantages based on their physiological make-up and they’ve maximised those advantages through dedication and who knows what else. Yet none of them have been banned for their body making them special and usually untouchable.
So why Semenya?
It’s why this should never have been about testosterone levels.
Last week, when the Court of Arbitration for Sport made their ruling against the 28-year-old, five times in a mere two-page synopsis the letters XY crept up in succession. To be precise it was in reference to Swyer Syndrome, also known as 46XY, and this was hugely surprising as it has been massively underreported. For those of us who studied biology to a mere Leaving Certificate level will know that this is not the chromosomal make-up of a genetic female.
To be sure I contacted an expert on this.
“She’s genetically a man but phenotype (outwardly) a woman,” this medical professional said. “The issue is not her genetics, which aren’t in question, but the fact she entirely and reasonably identifies as a woman because that’s what her external genitalia identify her as.”
“But in terms of genetics does that make her a man?” I responded.
“Correct. Genetically she is a man.”
Those last four words should be the beginning, middle and end of this whole episode.
That many haven’t gone this way when looking at the issue is understandable, if wholly problematic. It can feel intrusive, as if stepping into a personal and delicate and private matter, and in the real world that would absolutely be the case. There you should live and let live. But this isn’t the real world and it’s certainly nothing personal. It’s merely business.
Yet look at the commentary.
How often have you had it explained in such a cold terms when that’s what is needed?
The Washington Post for instance penned, “In ruling against Olympic gold medalist Caster Semenya, the highest court in international sports effectively imposed an exacting definition of who should be considered male or female based on a single factor – testosterone levels.” Meanwhile in The Independent, Jonathan Liew noted, “A personal view is that CAS’s decision is both deeply conservative and politically expedient. Conservative because it is heavily biased towards tradition and the status quo, and insufficiently attuned to the incredible complexity of gender and gender identity.” That all sounds good and liberal on the surface, but the definition of a male or female is based on a single factor – albeit it not testosterone – and bias and conservatism should instead be viewed as biological fact.
Therefore questions need to be asked as to why the IAAF made the straightforward anything but, and allowed for a justifiable defence of testosterone levels based on everything from special athletes being just that, to those who are 46XY not being able to use the extra testosterone as a man would, to a complete lack of research around performance benefit. It also allowed the PC brigade to wade in, talking discrimination in a time where they push for tolerance, but the whole point of grading based on age or sex or nationality is to create categories and fairer competition within those categories. Not to undervalue the frailty of this case and what Semenya thinks, but it’s not so different in terms of strictly sport to allowing nations to buy in mercenaries to compete for them at international level.
If anyone can compete in any category, then they cease to serve a purpose.
Granted, some athletes didn’t help this along either, and they made it easy to feel for the abuse Semenya took. A decade back, before any of this knowledge was in the public domain, several made assumptions. It was 2009 when Semenya won her first world title as a mere 18-year-old and Mariya Savinova, who finished fifth, vilely said, “Just look at her”. Elisa Cusma of Italy, who came sixth, chimed in more brutally still, replying, “For me, she is not a woman. She is a man”. They didn’t even know she had this condition but it didn’t stop them.
Such a jumping of the gun tainted what we now know to be black and white with bitterness and even a whiff of racism since day one. It was also hugely insensitive, especially when talking at a mere teenager. There’s an article on Vice about living with Swyer Syndrome and it opens with a quote from a 23-year-old from Wales who recalled her own teenage years. “I was called names like ‘man beast,’ ‘man boobs,’ and ‘Shrek. It was a very difficult time.”
Can you imagine what that was like for Semenya then given her international profile?
Her finest moment reduced to jibes over an issue she was learning to live with and had no control over.
They tried to make it about such factors but this shouldn’t be about her looks, about her times, about her victories.
It’s simply about the fact that genetically she is a man.
Let’s repeat this one more time. Caster Semenya’s chromosomes are XY, not XX. And while so much has been made of how unfair all of this is on her, how often have you heard it mentioned that it’s unfair on those that have to compete against someone biologically in a faster and stronger gender. Should that be allowed to go on into the future? In fact, far beyond offering Semenya the option of medication which is frankly demeaning, and far beyond just banning her from middle-distance female races, she should actually be excluded across the board. Instead, we are left wondering if the means justified the ends.
Ultimately however don’t conflate genetics with gender identity either. Externally Semenya may be female, but internally that isn’t strictly the case. So is someone with such male chromosomal advantages beating females “phenomenal”?
No, instead it’s a complete farce.
That’s not to suggest a lack of regard for Semenya, for none of this has been her fault. You can feel terrible for her, indeed you should. But in a sporting sense, it doesn’t make her right.
And it doesn’t make the decision to ban her in any way wrong.