'I Am A Woman': Track Star Caster Semenya Continues Her Fight To Compete As Female

May 31, 2019
Originally published on June 3, 2019 2:04 pm

This week, the Olympic champion runner Caster Semenya of South Africa filed an appeal in a case that hinges on her right to compete as a woman. It's the latest chapter in a fight that's gone on for years, and that raises thorny questions about fairness and ethics in sport.

Semenya, 28, is a two-time gold medalist in the 800 meter event. She is asking the Swiss Federal Supreme Court to throw out a ruling issued earlier this month by the Court of Arbitration for Sport, or CAS, which is based in Lausanne.

That ruling upheld regulations that will require some female track athletes with naturally-elevated testosterone levels to lower those levels with drugs or surgery, if they want to compete in certain women's events on the international stage.

Just two days after losing that court fight, Semenya took to the track in the Diamond League championships in Doha, Qatar, and blistered past the competition in her marquee event, the 800 meters.

Caster Semanya competes in the Diamond League championships in Doha, Qatar.
YouTube

"My word! Is there any end to her talent?" marveled an announcer as he watched Semenya pull away from the pack in the home stretch. "Is this, as some people have suggested, something of an act of defiance, given what's been going on?"

In a statement when she filed her appeal, Semenya said, "I am a woman and I am a world-class athlete. The IAAF will not drug me or stop me from being who I am."

The IAAF is the International Association of Athletics Federations, the international governing body for track and field, which imposed the regulations, arguing that the rules are necessary to create a level playing field in women's events.

In its 2-1 ruling, CAS found that while the regulations are discriminatory, "such discrimination is a necessary, reasonable and proportionate means of achieving the legitimate objective of ensuring fair competition in female athletics."

It's really difficult to support a rule that seems to be based more on a preconceived idea of what a woman should be, rather than who a woman is. - Dr. Eric Vilain, geneticist

It's not simple to define sex

The IAAF regulations apply to certain athletes with what are known as Differences of Sex Development, or DSDs, which means they were born with anatomy that doesn't neatly fit into the binary, male or female categories. These individuals are also known as intersex.

"People think that it's simple to define sex. It's not," says Dr. Eric Vilain, a geneticist who specializes in the study of sexual development at Children's National Health System and George Washington University in Washington, D.C.

Dr. Vilain, who testified as an expert witness on Caster Semenya's behalf, explains that the biology of sex classification is anything but straightforward; there can be a wide spectrum of variations.

"It's really difficult to support a rule that seems to be based more on a preconceived idea of what a woman should be, rather than who a woman is," he says.

Caster Semenya was raised as a female and is legally female. She's fighting rules that affect DSD athletes who have what are typically male XY chromosomes, who were born with internal testes and who have testosterone levels higher than the typical female range.

An unfair advantage?

Supporters of the rules say higher testosterone gives these athletes an unfair performance advantage, since it provides a boost in power, endurance, and speed.

So, they say, if you want to create a level playing field, the new restrictions make sense.

"Fairness is an extremely subjective word," says Joanna Harper, who researches gender and sport, and testified on behalf of the IAAF. "I prefer the word equitable."

We separate male athletes and female athletes not on the basis of gender identity, or legal sex, or how people are identified at birth, but rather on biological characteristics that make men so much better at sport than women. - Joanna Harper, author

Harper says, "We separate male athletes and female athletes not on the basis of gender identity, or legal sex, or how people are identified at birth, but rather on biological characteristics that make men so much better at sport than women."

Harper, author of a forthcoming book entitled Sporting Gender: the History, Science and Stories of Transgender and Intersex Athletes, argues that the rules should not be seen as stripping a female athlete of her identity.

"Whether someone is a woman or someone is a man or perhaps somewhere in between, is a very complicated thing," Harper says. "The separation of athletes into male and female categories is something that I call creating an 'athletic gender.' And it's merely one component of a human being's existence."

Creating a 'protected space' for women to compete

For Duke Law School professor Doriane Coleman, the IAAF rules guarantee a "protected space" for women to compete. Coleman is a former 800 meter runner who studies sex and sport.

"If eligibility for women's sports events can't be based on biological sex traits, or at least one biological sex trait," she says, "then you won't see females on the podium."

Silver medalist Francine Niyonsaba (L) of Burundi, gold medalist Caster Semenya (R) of South Africa and bronze medalist Margaret Nyairera Wambui (C) of Kenya stand on the podium during the medal ceremony for the Women's 800 meter at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games.
Patrick Smith / Getty Images

Coleman points to the women's 800 meter final at the 2016 Olympic games in Rio de Janeiro, where all three podium spots were won by women who say they will be affected by the new rules on DSD athletes: Caster Semenya, who took gold; Francine Niyonsaba of Burundi, who won silver; and Margaret Wambui of Kenya, who won bronze.

"It was very frustrating to watch it happen," Coleman says. "It wasn't about the individuals; it was about the goals of women's sport ... And it was really hard to know that on that day there would not be a female, biologically speaking on the podium in the women's 800."

Definitions are difficult

But how to define exactly who is a biological woman is not at all clear-cut.

"Sex is not defined by one particular parameter," says geneticist Eric Vilain. What's more, he says, "for many human reasons, it's so difficult to exclude women who've always lived their entire lives as women — to suddenly tell them 'you just don't belong here.' Because the implication is to tell them 'well, you're not really a woman.' And I think society should not accept that easily."

No matter what you do, you're going to end up hurting someone. - Steve Magness, running coach

The new rules apply only to certain distance events, from 400 meters to one mile, where, the IAAF claims, runners get the most performance benefit from testosterone. Scientists who testified on behalf of Semenya dispute those data.

If the affected athletes want to race in those restricted events, the IAAF says, they can compete in the male classification.

Dr. Vilain says that's absurd: "If the same athlete could be a woman in one and a man in another, it makes absolutely no sense," he says.

Medically suppressing testosterone

As for how the DSD athletes can suppress their testosterone, they have three choices: they can have their testes surgically removed; they can get a monthly injection that blocks testosterone; or they can take birth control pills.

But all of those options — even birth control pills — come with risks, says Dr. Veronica Gomez-Lobo, the founder of the Differences of Sex Development clinic at Children's National Health System.

We are against doping of any sort ... It is definitely not a way to tell someone you're a woman only if you take certain medications. - Dr. Frank Montgomery, World Medical Association

"Even though we tend to think of [oral contraceptives] as being very safe," she says, "they can cause blood clots that can travel to your lung and and can be very dangerous. And although that's very rare, that can happen. So you're forcing somebody to take a medication she doesn't need and she doesn't want to take, and she's incurring the side effects and risks of that medication only to compete."

'Inverse doping'

The World Medical Association, or WMA, is so angered by the IAAF regulations that they've urged doctors around the world to refuse to comply. The WMA calls the regulations unethical and a violation of human rights.

"There is no medical need and no medical indication for this therapy, and therefore, doctors should not prescribe it," says Dr. Frank Montgomery, the WMA's chair of council.

Montgomery calls it "inverse doping" to require athletes to take drugs that will sabotage their performance.

"We are against doping of any sort," Montgomery says. "Ethically and medically this fairness argument doesn't carry. It is definitely not a way to tell someone you're a woman only if you take certain medications."

None of this is simple.

"No matter what you do, you're going to end up hurting someone. And I think that's what makes this topic so difficult," says Steve Magness, who coaches professional runners and writes about the science of performance.

"You can at the same time feel incredible compassion toward Semenya and DSD athletes and say that 'hey, what's happening isn't right'. But at the same time, you can say we protect the women's division of sport for a reason and we have to decide somewhere where we want to divide that."

For now, these rules apply only to track and field. It will be up to other sports federations to decide whether to follow suit.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

When a two-time Olympic champion runner, Caster Semenya, was asked if she would agree to take drugs to lower her testosterone, she gave a definite answer - quote, "hell no." This week, she filed an appeal to press that point. She's asking the Swiss Federal Supreme Court to throw out an earlier court ruling that went against her.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

At issue are rules that require track and field athletes who are intersex to suppress their naturally elevated testosterone levels with drugs or surgery if they want to compete in certain events. This has generated a whole lot of controversy. And as NPR's Melissa Block reports, it raises difficult questions about fairness, ethics and who gets to be allowed to compete as a woman.

MELISSA BLOCK, BYLINE: In her native South Africa, Caster Semenya is a hero. This video from one of her corporate sponsors asks, how do you stop a determined woman?

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED NARRATOR: You can't. You can knock her down, kick her down.

BLOCK: We see Semenya on the track festooned with medals. But then we see a news clipping that says, man or monster?

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED NARRATOR: You can even try to drug her to slow her down. When the rights of a woman are threatened, she will never, ever back down.

BLOCK: And indeed, just two days after a court ruled against her this month, Semenya took to the track.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: Look at that silky smooth, serene style from Caster Semenya.

BLOCK: She blistered past the competition in the 800 meters in Doha, Qatar.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: My word. Is there any end to her talent? And she's just running away. Is this, as some people have suggested, something of an act of defiance, given what's been going on?

BLOCK: Afterword, the 28-year-old called it the easiest race she had ever run.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CASTER SEMENYA: For me, negativity's nothing. So as long as it doesn't kill me, it makes me stronger, like I said.

BLOCK: But the racing future of Semenya and other intersex athletes is very much in doubt. Let's back up. We're not talking about transgender athletes here. Intersex refers to people who are born with anatomy that doesn't neatly fit into the binary male or female categories.

ERIC VILAIN: People think that it's simple to define sex. It's not.

BLOCK: Dr. Eric Vilain says the biology of sex classification is anything but straightforward. There can be a wide spectrum of variations. Vilain is a geneticist at Children's National Health System in Washington, D.C. He specializes in the study of sexual development and testified as an expert witness on Caster Semenya's behalf.

VILAIN: It's really difficult to support a rule that seems to be based more on preconceived idea of what a woman should be rather than who a woman is.

BLOCK: Semenya was raised as a female and is legally female. She's fighting rules that target athletes with a difference of sex development or DSD, specifically those who have what are typically male XY chromosomes who were born with internal testes and have testosterone levels higher than the typical female range. Supporters of the rules say higher testosterone gives these athletes an unfair performance advantage since it provides a boost in power, endurance and speed. So they say if you want to create a level playing field, the new restrictions make sense.

Joanna Harper researches gender and sport and testified in the Semenya case on behalf of the governing body for track and field, the IAAF.

JOANNA HARPER: We separate male athletes and female athletes not on the basis of gender identity or legal sex or how people are identified at birth, but rather on biological characteristics that make men so much better at sport than women.

BLOCK: And Duke Law School professor Doriane Coleman says the rules guarantee a protected space for women to compete. She is a former 800-meter runner who studies sex and sport.

DORIANE COLEMAN: If eligibility for women's sports events can't be based on biological sex traits or at least one biological sex trait, then you won't see females on the podium.

BLOCK: But who gets to decide who is female? As Caster Semenya said in a statement when she filed her appeal, I am a woman, and I am a world-class athlete. The IAAF will not drug me or stop me from being who I am. The new rules apply only to certain distance events from 400 meters to one mile where the Federation claims runners get the most benefit from testosterone. If the affected athletes want to race in those events, the Federation says, well, they can compete in the male classification. Geneticist Eric Vilain says that's absurd.

VILAIN: If the same athlete could be a woman in one and a man in another, it makes absolutely no sense.

BLOCK: As for how the DSD athletes can suppress their testosterone, they have three choices. They could have their testes surgically removed. They can get a monthly injection that blocks testosterone, or they can take birth control pills. Dr. Veronica Gomez-Lobo is the founder of the Differences of Sex Development clinic at Children's National. She says all of these options come with risks, even birth control pills.

VERONICA GOMEZ-LOBO: Even though we tend to think of them as being very safe, they can cause blood clots that can travel to your lung and can be very dangerous. Although that's very rare, that can happen. So you're forcing somebody to take a medication she doesn't want to take, and she's incurring the side effects and risks of that medication only to compete.

FRANK MONTGOMERY: There is no medical need and no medical indication for this therapy, and therefore doctors should not prescribe it.

BLOCK: That's Dr. Frank Montgomery, chair of the World Medical Association, which calls the regulations unethical, a violation of human rights. The group has urged doctors around the world to refuse to comply. Requiring athletes to take drugs that will reduce performance, Montgomery calls that inverse doping.

MONTGOMERY: And we are against doping of any sort. Ethically and medically, this fairness argument doesn't carry. It is definitely not a way to tell someone you're a woman only if you take certain medication.

BLOCK: None of this is simple. And Steve Magness, who coaches professional runners, says it's possible to hold what seem like contradictory opinions on this.

STEVE MAGNESS: You can at the same time feel incredible compassion towards Semenya and DSD athletes and say that, hey, what's happening isn't right. But at the same time, you can say we protect the women's division of sport for a reason, and we have to decide somewhere where we want to divide that.

BLOCK: For now, these rules apply only to track and field. It's up to other sports federations to decide whether to follow suit. Melissa Block, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SLOWLY ROLLING CAMERA'S "JUNIPER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.