As a female athlete, I thought high testosterone was a problem. Now I realise this is an outdated and indefensible position
A lot will be written by scientists, activists, lawyers, bureaucrats and others about Caster Semenya’s discrimination case. But women athletes are rarely heard from – especially those who have competed against Semenya, and other women alleged by the International Association of Athletics Federations to have “unfair” athletic abilities as a result of naturally elevated testosterone levels.
I competed for Australia in the 800m against Semenya at the 2009 World Athletics Championships in Berlin. Today I am convinced that the court of arbitration for sport’s decision to endorse rules aimed at excluding Semenya and other women athletes with naturally high levels of testosterone is the wrong one.
In 2009 I watched the women’s 800m final from the stands as Semenya crossed the finish line more than two seconds clear of the pack. At the time, it was by far the path of least resistance for me to join the chorus of voices condemning her performance as “unfair”. The race unfolded in a context in which athletics’ governing body, the IAAF, had already announced to the world that it was questioning Semenya’s biological sex and right to compete. Nobody in my orbit presented an alternative viewpoint or held me to account for my own uninformed opinions. It was all a rather convenient state of affairs for an athlete seeking consolation for their poor performance in the heats a few days earlier.
Four years later, I was reluctantly pursuing a PhD in sociology in the United States after a career-ending injury. Quite unexpectedly, I found myself taking a class where I was made to revisit what had unfolded at those championships. For the first time, I encountered the vast literature written by advocates of women’s sport who oppose the exclusion of women athletes with naturally high testosterone for both scientific and ethical reasons: scientifically, because biological sex and athletic ability are both far too complex for scientists to reduce to measures of testosterone, and ethically, because these regulatory efforts have always been characterised by considerable harm to the women athletes singled out for testing. While I was initially confronted and confused by this discovery, I eventually began to question the convictions about fairness and sex difference that I had long held as an athlete.
Critically, during this time I also befriended some women with high testosterone. Enter another complicating factor: scientific and ethical concerns aside, was I willing to recognise my friends as women outside of sport yet deny them the right to compete alongside me on the track? The short answer, I realised, was no. The issue had shifted from one I could keep at a distance and discuss in the abstract to one that implicated the lives of people I actually knew and cared about.
By 2015 my views had evolved sufficiently far that I testified in support of the Indian athlete Dutee Chand when she appealed against the IAAF’s previous set of rules at the court of arbitration for sport (Cas). One year later, Semenya stormed to victory in the women’s 800m at the Rio Olympics. I felt regret: not at her gold medal, but at the vicious response from the track-and-field community to both her and other medallists accused of having high testosterone and hence an allegedly “unfair” advantage. Had so little changed since 2009?
As a sociologist, I have now spent several years immersed in this issue, interviewing elite track-and-field stakeholders from around the world including athletes, coaches, officials, managers, team staff and media personnel. In their accounts I have seen so many echoes of my own experience in Berlin: an astounding lack of information, an absence of alternative viewpoints, a fear of the unknown, weak leadership from national and international governing bodies, and a stubborn refusal to dig a little deeper and reflect critically on where their views come from and what biases might be underlying them. The path of least resistance is to turn away from information and perspectives that might undermine one’s investment in the simplistic notion that sex is binary and testosterone is unfair (at least in women).
After Wednesday’s decision, the IAAF finds itself at a crossroads. Given the Cas has ruled in its favour, it could simply breathe a sigh of relief and forge doggedly ahead with a regulatory approach that has plunged the sport into a quandary and which, over 70 years, has consistently proved scientifically and ethically indefensible. This will prove to be the losing side of history: the pressures on the sport to change have intensified in recent years, and will surely not relent with this decision.
Alternatively, the IAAF could consider the road it has not yet travelled: engage in educational efforts aimed at promoting informed discussion, allaying fears of the unknown and promoting understanding as a viable alternative to exclusion. In other words, the IAAF could take the lead in creating a sporting environment in which it becomes possible to truly recognise women with high testosterone as the “humans, daughters, and sisters” that our president, Seb Coe, claims them to be at the same time as he denies their right to participate.
In May 2018 I met Semenya in person for the first time since our encounter in that Berlin stadium, this time in Botswana at an international conference for women and sport. She signed one of the only photos I have of that race. When I told her how much I respected her, it felt as though my athletic/academic life had come full circle. Watching her speak to the throng of crazed fans, almost all of them women, I caught a glimpse of what could be our sport’s future. A path with more resistance, perhaps, but surely a path we might now consider taking.
• Madeleine Pape is a PhD candidate in Sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She competed in the 800m for Australia at the Beijing Olympics in 2008 and the World Championships in 2009