Sunday, 21 August 2016

Understanding the Controversy Over Caster Semenya

Caster Semenya of South Africa, heavily favored to win the Olympic women’s 800 meters, ran a quick opening round this week and then breezed past reporters.


Who could blame her?

Perhaps no female athlete has faced such brutal scrutiny by fellow competitors, sports officials and journalists.

When Semenya, then 18, dominated the 800 at the 2009 world track and field championships, winning by more than two seconds, a fellow competitor called her a man. Pierre Weiss, the general secretary of the International Association of Athletics Federations, track and field’s world governing body, said, “She is a woman, but maybe not 100 percent.”

Semenya was barred from competition and subjected to sex tests. She returned months later, but the insensitivity shown toward her was sad.

Katrina Karkazis, a Stanford University bioethicist, said Semenya was punished simply for “being too fast and supposedly too masculine” by Western standards.

The questioning of Semenya’s success led to a policy enacted in 2011 by the I.A.A.F., the sport’s governing body, that restricted the permitted levels of testosterone, which occur naturally high in some women. That condition is called hyperandrogenism.

Female athletes above the testosterone threshold of 10 nanomoles per liter — considered at the lower end of the male range — faced the prospect of invasive, humiliating and potentially risky measures if they wanted to continue competing. These included hormone-suppressing drugs and surgery to remove internal testes, which can produce testosterone.

It is not known for certain what, if any, procedures were undergone by Semenya, who won a silver medal at the 2012 London Olympics. Nor could it be verified, as reported in 2009 in The Daily Telegraph of Australia, that Semenya had internal testes and three times the testosterone level of a typical woman.

At this point, it does not matter. Last year, the Court of Arbitration for Sport, the Swiss-based high court for international sport, suspended track and field’s testosterone policy for two years.Slide Show

The court said it had been “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.”

Did elevated testosterone provide women with a 1 percent competitive advantage? Three percent? More? Available science could not say, the court ruled. It gave the I.A.A.F. two years to try to discern that advantage. The ruling was based on the case of Dutee Chand, a sprinter from India.
Understanding the Controversy Over Caster Semenya
The court ruling was the correct one.
As the arbitration panel noted, science has not conclusively shown that elevated testosterone provides women with more of a significant competitive edge than factors like nutrition, access to coaching and training facilities, and other genetic and biological variations.

All Olympians have some exceptional traits. That is why they are elite athletes. A level playing field for everyone remains elusive, perhaps unattainable.

Kenyan and Ethiopian marathoners live and train at altitude, naturally enhancing their oxygen-carrying capacity. And they tend to have long, thin legs that make running more energy efficient. Kevin Durant and Brittney Griner are great basketball players in part because they are nearly 7 feet tall.

Eero Mantyranta, a Finnish cross-country skier who won seven Olympic medals in the 1960s, including three golds, was found to have a genetic mutation that increased his hemoglobin level to about 50 percent higher than the average man’s.

There is “no fundamental difference” between a congenital disorder that produces high testosterone levels and a genetic mutation that produces elevated hemoglobin levels, according to a recent commentary, “The Olympic Games and Athletic Sex Assignment,” in The Journal of the American Medical Association.

Yet elevated levels of naturally occurring hemoglobin do not disqualify athletes. In any case, the Journal commentary said, “all of these biological differences are minuscule compared with the suspected use of performance-enhancing substances.”

If elevated testosterone provided an overriding competitive advantage, said Karkazis, the Stanford bioethicist, why did Chand, the Indian sprinter, not advance beyond the first round of the Olympic 100 meters?

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“If you believe this is jet fuel, then what’s going on?” said Karkazis, who testified on Chand’s behalf before the arbitration court.

The I.A.A.F. does not investigate further if atypically high levels of testosterone in men are determined to occur naturally,an editorial in Scientific Americanrecently noted. It added, “Fairness and science both dictate that women should be treated exactly the same.”

There are reasonable people on both sides of the testosterone debate. And there is deep emotion, too. It is an extremely complex issue, which includes the Olympic participation of transgender athletes.

Experts do not suggest that Semenya has taken banned substances. No one serious is calling her a man. No prominent voices suggest that separate categories should not exist for women’s and men’s sports.

But many remain concerned that women’s sports will be threatened if some athletes are allowed to compete with a testosterone advantage, even if athletes are reluctant to address the testosterone issue during the Olympics.

Semenya easily advanced out of the semifinals on Thursday night; the final is Saturday. Ajee Wilson of the United States, who finished second to Semenya in their opening heat, said, “It is something that should be revisited.” But Wilson also said: “At this point, what I think doesn’t really matter. We’re all on the track. Whoever’s on there is racing.”

Dr. Eric Vilain, a medical geneticist from U.C.L.A., told my colleague Juliet Macur last year that “if we push this argument, anyone declaring a female gender can compete as a woman.”

He added, “We’re moving toward one big competition, and the very predictable result of that competition is that there will be no women winners.”

Paula Radcliffe of England, the retired world-record holder in the women’s marathon, told BBC Radio last month that it was “no longer sport” when a victory was so seemingly assured as Semenya’s appeared in Rio.

Radcliffe also suggested that some unnamed countries might actively recruit hyperandrogenic athletes to win more races.

But this feared “gender apocalypse,” as Karkazis calls it, seems unlikely. We are talking about a very small number of women. And male impostors exist in myth more than reality. It appears that Semenya’s case is being used to make wider assumptions based more on supposition than evidence.

The notion that women’s sports need to be protected is paternalistic, Karkazis said, calling it “the mantle under which all kinds of discriminatory and sexist ideas enter.”

In a sport once dominated by white Europeans, said Madeleine Pape of Australia, who competed against Semenya in the 2009 world championships, women who have fought so hard for the right to compete and for sustainable financial support can feel threatened by the rising success of a faster competitor. Especially, Pape said, if that athlete is non-gender-conforming and is married to another woman, as Semenya is.

In truth, Radcliffe is more of an outlier than Semenya. Radcliffe’s marathon record of 2 hours 15 minutes 25 seconds is about 10 percent slower than the fastest men’s time of 2:02:57. Meanwhile, Semenya’s best performance at 800 meters of 1 minute 55.33 seconds, which is not the world record, is about 12 percent slower than the men’s record of 1:40.91.

Radcliffe and gold medal athletes in Rio, like the American gymnast Simone Biles and the swimmer Katie Ledecky, have been as dominant as Semenya or more dominant, but their gender has not been openly questioned, Pape said.

“When we look at it objectively, Caster Semenya is no more exceptional than they are,” Pape, who is a doctoral student in sociology at the University of Wisconsin, said in an email. “So why do we celebrate them while persecuting Semenya?”

The Journal of the American Medical Association said it was appropriate for athletes who were born with a disorder of sex development and were raised as female to be allowed to compete as women.

That sounds like the right call. Let athletes compete as who they are.

“God made me the way I am, and I accept myself,” Semenya told You, a South African magazine, in 2009. “I am who I am, and I’m proud of myself.”

It would seem unfair to tell her, Sorry, you can’t run in the Olympics because of the way you were born. www.nytimes.com

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