The Caster Semenya debate

16 Jul 2016 Posted by
So… Yesterday, Caster Semenya won the Monaco Diamond League 800m in 1:55.33.  She ran it like an interval session – 56s to the bell, then really shut it down for 200m, a ‘recovery’ run in 31s to 600m, and then opened up again to finish with a 28s last 200m to run the fastest time since 2008, and put herself even higher up on a list of names in an event that has a massively checkered history.

There is no more certain gold medal in the Rio Olympics than Semenya.  She could trip and fall, anywhere in the first lap, lose 20m, and still win the race.  There is also no more certain a controversy at the Rio Olympic Games than Caster Semenya.  Her story began in 2009, with the sex-verification controversy of Berlin, and then it progressed over six years during which she was subject to a new rule that governed intersex athletes by limiting their testosterone levels.

CAS overturned that rule last year, when an Indian sprinter called Dutee Chand took her case to them.  The result is that all intersex women no longer have a limit on testosterone.  Semenya is certainly not the only one – rumours of other runners exist, though none were so shamefully “outed” as Semenya in 2009.  However, she is proof of the benefit of testosterone to intersex athletes – having had the restriction removed, she is now about 6 seconds faster than she’d been over the last two years.

And the way that she is running those times suggests much more to come.  The 1:55.43 yesterday could well have been a world record, in my opinion.  When someone finishes in 28s, there’s a lot in reserve.

After the Monaco meeting, she confirmed that she will run both the 400m and 800m in Rio.  Considering that she’s run a sub-50s 400 split in a 4x400m relay, and a 50.74s on a day in which she won a 400m, 800m and 1500m within three hours, there’s reason to think Semenya is a real medal chance in the 400m.  In fact, I would say the best barometer for her potential is probably Kratochvilova, the world record holder in the 800m.  She ran 1:53.28, a time Semenya is capable of, easily.  She also ran 47.99s for 400m, and while that may be out of reach (for now, maybe), I think Semenya will run 48.x in Rio, and win that gold too.

That means beating Allyson Felix, who is the darling of the USA Olympic broadcast campaign – every second advertisement over here has her in it – and that means the discussion, and all the vitriol that characterised it in 2009 will be even bigger than it was then.

So, we have a dilemma.  Or at least, I do.  Do I comment on this issue, and try to explain some of the science and concepts and principles, or do I shut it down and leave it alone?  A journalist in South Africa had this comment for me yesterday:

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So to comment on this issue is to cut the athlete down.  That’s the perception of the media in SA, of course, because who wants to spoil the party?  We could be about to win two golds.  We see this in cycling too, of course, back in the Lance era from one continent, and now with another who pander to a narrative of miracles.

However, this issue will be huge, and it deserves some portrayal, if not from the patriots and fans, then from others.  Now, it’s massively complex, and I dread the response back in SA during the Games when the controversy erupts.  The dilemma is thus this: Do you leave it alone, pretend there is no problem, pass it off as “those are the rules, CAS has decided, nothing to see here”?

Or do you try to contribute to a relevant, topical discussion and offer angles of the debate that some people might not see?  Which would be the principled position, the one with integrity, both as a journalist and a scientist?

So I’d prefer to have my integrity, and while it won’t be popular, and I appreciate that some may disagree, I really do firmly believe that the issue must be discussed properly.  That means respectfully, it means accurately (bad thinking should be pointed out), and means completely, not suggesting it be left alone because it’s hard, or unfair, or awkward.

So, what’s the issue?  The issue is CAS’ decision, and whether athletes who are intersex should compete in the female category.  That’s an issue I discussed extensively with Joanna Harper in a recent post – Harper is a transgender athlete and scientist, and she has knowledge of the issue from different perspectives.  That interview, and the article with my thoughts is lengthy, but if you want to get to grips with some of the concepts and key issues here, I really do encourage you to take the time to read it (especially if you’re in the media).

Then, yesterday after the Semenya race in Monaco, a discussion thread began on forum, and I felt compelled to post a few comments there too.  Yes, I know what you’ll say about forums, and their quality and the futility of trying to engage in discussion with some people.  But that, to me, is also not a reason to run from the discussion.  If only 1 in 10 people can take something from the discussion, then that’s progress.

So, below are excerpts from a discussion that I got into on’s forum.  You can read the whole thing here, but I’m posting sections and screen grabs, and I do so for two reasons:

  1. To show the type of discussion that will happen in Rio. I hope that this serves as a wake-up call to a number of different people in various areas, and you appreciate that unless there are voices trying to offer a more complete picture, the situation gets out of control very fast.  So front up, take responsibly and let’s address the concepts and their application to Semenya
  2. The discussion also contains, I think, some important concepts around the issues, and so I hope that its content helps guide some thinking in the future.  Again, I’m not that optimistic that many will change their opinion there, but as I said, if 1 in 10 people get some food for thought, then happy days
  3. (Oh, and because it saves me typing it all over again!)

As you read this, appreciate that yes, this is a forum not known for sensible comments (by most – some are good), but that it represents one extreme perspective in a debate that is only just getting warmed up.  Appreciate also that there is another extreme, on the opposite end of the spectrum, who would shoot down any option that intersex athletes should not compete as women by labelling you a bigot and various other terms.  This is a charged issue, ready to detonate, and that’s the point of this post.

Again, it’s a little long, but this is not a simple, short issue, and if you want it to be, you are part of the problem.


My original post

Here is my original post, on page 3 of the discussion:

I think the fundamental issue is this:
We have a separate category for women because without it, no women would even make the Olympic Games (with the exception of equestrian). Most of the women’s world records, even doped, lie outside the top 5000 times run by men. Radcliffe’s marathon WR, for instance, is beaten by between 250 and 300 men per year. Without a women’s category, elite sport would be exclusively male.

That premise hopefully agreed, we then see that the presence of the Y-chromosome is THE single greatest genetic “advantage” a person can have. That doesn’t mean that all men outperform all women, but it means that for elite sport discussion, that Y-chromosome, and specifically the SRY gene on it, which directs the formation of testes and the production of Testosterone, is a key criteria on which to separate people into categories.

Now, for various biological reasons, and I’ll follow the post above up with another on the specific science of this issue, sometimes that testosterone doesn’t quite “do its job”, and that is when we find ourselves dealing with an athlete like Semenya.

She is NOT a man. And it is enormously disrespectful to call her “it”, or “he”. Nor should any of your wrath or frustration be directed towards her. She’s runningper the rules that were changed by CAS, and it is they who should shoulder the responsibility for the mess that is the women’s 800m.

So going back to the premise that women’s sport is the PROTECTED category, and that this protection must exist because of the insurmountable and powerful effects of testosterone, my opinion on this is that it is fair and correct to set an upper limit for that testosterone, which is what the sport had before CAS did away with it.

The advantage enjoyed by a Semenya is not the same as the one enjoyed by say, Usain Bolt, or LeBron James, or Michael Phelps, because we don’t compete in categories of fast-twitch fiber, or height, or foot size (pick your over simplification for performance here). So Semenya has a genetic advantage, by virtue of A) having a Y-chromosome and testes, and B) being unable to use that T and/or one of its derivatives enough to have developed fully male.

In that regard, if you approached it from the other direction, you could, relatively accurately, say that Semenya has a disadvantage compared to other males with XY and testosterone, because unlike them she cannot fully use T (and/or a derivative – depends on the exact condition).

However, as it stands, her “advantage” is seen and responded to, rather than the “disadvantage” and she competes as a woman. It means that she identifies as a woman, is female, but my contention and the thing that sport might have to address is whether someone who identifies as one gender is necessarily able to compete as that gender.

That’s where the hyperandrogenic guidelines tried to find a compromise – they set what was a very generous upper limit of 10, which is much higher than most females, but alas, CAS in their wisdom decided to do away with it.

Semenya, and a few others, are now providing how ludicrous CAS’ decision was.

One final point – there is a position here, made by a good few people who I really respect, which holds that Semenya and others did not choose this, they have not cheated, and it would be inhumane/unethical and violation of human rights to force upon someone a medical intervention that is not for health reasons, and to prevent them from participating in sport if they don’t.

That’s an argument I don’t agree with, but I can see that people may hold, and are entitled to. It’s not wrong, and it is possible to have two disagreeing positions without being wrong on either. What is wrong is to compare Semenya’s advantage to Bolt’s, or Phelps’, because their genetic “luck” doesn’t put them into a different category, and also, Semenya’s “advantage” is actually a “disadvantage” to competing, as I said.

Final point, Semenya will runthe 400 and 800 in Rio, and she will win both. It will cause a Sh!Tstorom of note, and I’m South African, so that will be a lot of fun (said nobody ever) and arguments. So this is a long post, sorry, and the article where I interview Harper is long, but really, this is going to be a big issue, and it pays to know a little before leaping into it! Besides, I thin kit’s a really interesting subject.



Gender, sex and a right to identify

The first two are comments and my responses about the identification of Semenya as a woman. I really do believe it is disrespectful to call her “he” (and “it” is even worse).  Semenya has lived her whole life as a female, and people have the right to identify as they wish.  In intersex cases, yeah, it’s a little more complex (more on that below), but the issue is whether we want to be decent human beings, and I think that means respecting her right to be called “she”.

Does that mean her desire to participate in women’s events has to be granted? No, of course not. You can respect a person’s self-identity as a human in a societal context and still hold that the person should not be allowed to compete in women’s sport with the elevated testosterone levels.  As I do.

When we discuss Semenya, or intersex cases in general (I’d love it to be ‘depersonalised’ by the way, but it’s not going to be), we are talking as a society about a person, and so I do feel it is proper, decent, and respectful to respect their right to identify themselves.  That’s particularly the case for Semenya, who has lived only as a female, regardless of chromosomal sex.

However, when we are addressing sport, then it’s plausible, in my opinion, that we might make a distinction between someone’s gender (which we can still respect), and their participation in a category in sport.  That could, and should be done biologically, which is why I’m saying that Semenya and intersex athletes should compete only if an upper limit for T is enforced.  So sport need not reflect society, and there’s no justification for deliberately saying “he” to make a point about sport participation.

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Who should be the target? Not Semenya

This issue exists because of CAS and political correctness.  I really don’t think it should be about an individual and I certainly don’t think there should be accusations of cheating or malice:

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We get stuck on the gender-biology distinction and an understanding of intersex

The definition of intersex, by the way, is a mismatch between chromosomal and anatomical sex.  So it means a person is XY, but develops female primary sex characteristics because of a failure to use testosterone (Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome), or a failure to produce a really important hormone from testosterone (alpha-5-reductase deficiency).  It can also happen when you have an XX who produces excessive testosterone as a result of a condition like Congenital Adrenal Hyperplasia (CAH), also as a result of an enzyme deficiency.  However, that’s less common in sport, and the evidence from the long history of sex verification tests says that the XY-female is much more prevalent.

When this is the case, the result a person who is male by chromosome, but female by appearance.  Or perhaps ambiguous, which makes classification very difficult.  But it’s factually wrong to say they are male, and also factually wrong to say they are female, in the biological sense (gender is different, as I’ve pointed out, where you can’t tell someone what they are in the social context).  They are intersex.  And for sport, a person can be female gender, but not be allowed to participate on biological grounds, but that doesn’t make them male by default.  That’s only true if you subscribe to a binary view of sex/gender, and that is, again, factually wrong.

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Good question – why not just XX for females?

Someone asked why we don’t just check the chromosomes, and if a person is XY, they’re male, and XX is female.  That’s a good question, with a contextual/historical answer:

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You idiot

So balanced discussion has already gone south by now (which is the point of sharing this with you – look what we are in for), but then this came along.  In which I am accused of a type of apartheid policy against women.  But, miraculously, the poster also believes that Semenya should not compete (as do I), which is actually what I would expect an apartheid accusation to be caused by.  Apartheid, of course, is exclusion.

But no, in this instance, I am guilty of apartheid and hypocrisy because I am trying to defend Semenya’s right to identify herself as female within society.   That’s more inclusive than exclusive, so I have no idea how it is apartheid.

I make the point that you can have a gender/societal self-identity without it meaning that the person must be allowed to compete as a woman.  Sports participation can be biological, but respect and human decency?  Societal.

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I give up

Ok, I’m done…

The frightening thing about all this is that this is a platform on which the majority of posters are very anti-Semenya.  They occupy the extreme position saying she should not compete.

At the other end of the spectrum are people who have called me a bigot for suggesting Semenya should not run in women’s events with high testosterone, and those like Kristen Worley who would say “you have no seat at the table so stop commenting on this issue” (she literally said that) because you’re of the opinion that the CAS decision was wrong and that high T levels are advantageous to intersex athletes.  Or you get journalists telling you to stop torturing Semenya or that you’re cutting people down when actually, you spend more time defending them and a principle.

So this is debate where people will shoot barbs, get aggressive and personal, and nobody wins.  Not Semenya, even if she wins.  Not those on either side (though they’ll think they are courageous warriors), and certainly not any women who have to compete and lose in the events affected.

Rio will amplify it.  Much dread.

Thanks for reading.


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This post is part of the thread: Caster Semenya – an ongoing story on this site. View the thread timeline for more context on this post.