Gender, sex and identity: Sports’ ruling bodies struggle to draw lines to ensure fairness for all

Image Credit: SAEED KHAN / AFP

The case of Caster Semenya is as fascinating as it is multi-faceted. And while the debate can be endless due to the multitude of factors, the position one ends up taking really pivots on just a single point: how gender is defined.

Is the two-time Olympic champion sprinter a woman? Is “she” really a man? Is her biological makeup a combination of both genders? That all depends on, yes, the definition of gender.

[Editor’s note: This is the first in a three-part series on the complicated and fluid issue of gender and sexual identity in elite sports. Read part two and part three.]

To that end, the governing body of global track and field has determined that since its organization exists – at least for the meantime – only in a two-gender world, the bottom line is it must have a way of separating the men’s division from the women’s. And that, it has determined, must be done using one metric: testosterone.

Specifically, it says, a measurement over a certain level requires a runner to compete with men (in certain, shorter races, because those are the ones where testosterone has been shown to have the greatest effect).

Moreover, since the 27-year-old South African has a form of testes, which produces testosterone in levels that exceed those produced by women athletes, the International Association of Athletics Federations has ruled that Semenya, and athletes like her, must either reduce their high level using hormone treatment or compete against men in those races.

And most importantly, since she has a chromosomal makeup that is not purely XX (female) but one that is however-partially XY (male), when you get right down to it, it makes sense for the IAAF to determine that’s where the line separating the two genders belongs. In essence, if you have any “Y” in your chromosomes – as far as racing is concerned – you can’t be considered a female.

Following the IAAF’s decision, which is scheduled to take effect in November, Semenya announced in June that she would challenge the new rule in the Court of Arbitration for Sport, in Switzerland, where international sports cases are adjudicated.

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“I just want to run naturally, the way I was born,” Semenya said recently after the rule was announced. “It is not fair that I am told I must change. It is not fair that people question who I am.”

Fairness, an excellent issue.

Yes, she has a firm, defensible belief that she’s not being treated fairly. The two-time 800-meter champion is being told to medically alter her biology, her natural body, if she still wants to compete in that race. But by the same token, is it fair that she has some form of testes – an anatomical advantage, which produces more testosterone – that her competitors do not? No, that’s not fair to the other women competing against Semenya, a constituency that IAAF must represent as well and one far bigger than a single runner.

Semenya doesn’t have a “natural” advantage over her competitors in the same way that taller basketball players can score more easily because they’re closer to the rim than shorter opponents. The reason is that all the players on the court are the same gender. That’s a crucial distinction that the IAAF is making, and if one’s anatomy – i.e., testes – is different, then you’re no longer competing against those of the same gender.

The IAAF could have made its gender decision on the differences and existence/non-existence of external genitalia. Or how a competitor was raised as a child, or a range of other criteria. But in choosing to focus on testosterone – and specifically, any presence of anatomical differences that corrupt a pure XX make-up – it appears perfectly reasonable for the IAAF to draw the gender line where it did.

Erik Lief has produced news and sports programs for CNBC, CBS News, ESPN and the Associated Press.

This article was originally published by the American Council on Science and Health as Deciding Where The ‘Gender Line’ Is In Track & Field, and has been reproduced here with permission.

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