OPINION: The Caster Semenya ruling reinforces false notions of sex as binary

by Hannah Newman | Loughborough University
Thursday, 2 May 2019 13:13 GMT

Athletics - Gold Coast 2018 Commonwealth Games - Women's 800m - Medal Ceremony - Carrara Stadium - Gold Coast, Australia - April 13, 2018. Gold medalist Caster Semenya of South Africa on the podium. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Sport must be an inclusive celebration that provides opportunities to all variations of the physical body, not one that only prioritises two predetermined ideals of what it should be.

Hannah Newman is a doctoral researcher in the sociology of sport and a research associate on “The Future of Legal Gender” project at Loughborough University

The decision of the Court of Arbitration for Sport to reject Caster Semenya’s appeal against the IAAF’s new testosterone policy is both deeply disappointing and extremely concerning.

The policy requires athletes competing in women’s track events from 400m to one mile to ensure that their testosterone level is kept below five nmol/L for at least six months prior to competition. This means that Semenya, and other athletes who have naturally occurring high testosterone levels, will be forced to take medication to artificially reduce these levels in order to be able to continue competing.

The question is how will athletes who do not fit neatly within societal expectations of them now be treated?

Indeed, the media was awash with comments at the time of the initial sex verification tests in 2009 concerning the way Semenya looked. This was used as a basis to suggest that she was not the sex that she claimed to be.

This implies that Semenya looked “incorrect” as a female athlete and as a woman, sending a profoundly disturbing message regarding society’s continual insistence on enforcing prescribed ideas as to what a woman “should” look like, and what a woman “should” be.

The notion of sex as binary is one that is known to be false. Ask any endocrinologist.

But sport, instead of acknowledging and embracing the spectrum of difference in biological sex that is now understood, maintains a need to place people into one of two boxes under the guise of creating a level playing field and being fair.

Those that fall outside of that, such as intersex people – also described as those with differences of sex development (DSDs) – are therefore positioned as the “other”. By preserving this outdated and dichotomous view of sex, competing in sport becomes a privilege only to those who are deemed to fit “correctly” within it.  

In the context of a sport that has been the centre of many doping scandals, and in which the status of an athlete as natural is revered so highly, why are we now asking them to make changes to their natural bodies?

As sport continues to repeatedly ask those athletes who do not fit within the sex and/or gender binaries to alter themselves until they do, perhaps it should instead be questioning why those binaries still exist as the primary method of dividing athlete categories.

While the potential alternatives to this categorisation may not be obvious, and implementing any alternative will not be fraught with resistance, it does not mean that they are not worth trying to find. 

Sport is a celebration of the physical body and its capabilities. This should be an inclusive celebration that provides opportunities to all variations of the physical body, not one that only prioritises two predetermined ideals of what it “should” be.