Semenya’s Return

Posted by – August 26, 2010

And another via my friend Matty, with whom I will be team teaching Gender Studies 100 this fall, about Caster Semenya’s return.

She added: “Even if she is a female, she’s on the very fringe of the normal athlete female biological composition from what I understand of hormone testing. So, from that perspective, most of us just feel that we are literally running against a man.”

To which I might say: isn’t the whole point of athletic competition pushing the envleope / finding the fringe of “normal”?

3 Comments on Semenya’s Return

  1. SusanK says:

    But what if, despite Caster thinking she is a woman and raised as a girl, she is genetically and physically male? What if all that didn’t work with her natal development was undescended testes and a pseudo-vagina (no female reproductive system)? Is she still entitled to compete with the women? And is that fair for the women competitors? Why did the South African physician who examined her before leaving for the Berlin competiton last summer clearly recommended she NOT go because there would be problems with her sex?

    The whole thing isn’t really about sex or gender but winning. Caster came out of nowhere in about a year to be a world class runner. She developed size and strength in the that year to be that runner, and that’s not from just training. She wanted to win. The South African Athletic Association wanted her to win. And off she went into the spotlight. The IAAF mishandled the circumstances of her tests and the agreement to let her keep the awards and records, but they also backed off from imposing a proper regimen for her to fairly compete against as female against women.

    Athletics isn’t really about gender but sex. And while it’s unfair to have a binary division for competition, it at least provides some measure of a level playing field. If any man had decided to run as a women, you can bet there would be a number of rules restricting him and prescribing a process, with tests, where he could compete as a she. This happened with Michelle Dumaresq, Kristen Worley and Marianne Bagger, so why is Caster any different? And what if even she required to undergo HRT (it’s been reported her testes were removed) she and her trainers didn’t follow it?

    As we know HRT only works when taken and the simple removal of testes would not impact her physical size and strength significantly for some time, long enough for her to overcome the loss with training and legal drugs. There is no obvious physical difference between her from last August and this August. So where are the effects of the HRT? If she had a female reproductive system, as some allege, where are the effects once the testes were removed?

    My argument is that the transcommunity has jumped on her bandwagon without thinking through the consequences of letting her compete fairly in women’s sports. We need to step back and account for all the women in the sport and find an equitable solution for fairness for all athletes, not a few transathletes who don’t fit the norm. Her case is unique, but it shouldn’t overshadow the fairness issue for all including her, and not just her at the cost of women athletes.

  2. tinasim02 says:

    I think SusanK’s comment is good but misses a crucial point. I’m going to give the family the benefit of the doubt and say that they had no reason to suspect that she was anything but a she. We’re not debating trans-ness here, we’re debating the genetics that she was born with. If competing is about sex and not gender then how are you defining female versus male. So do you classify her as a male just because she has an “abnormally” high level of testosterone? Or just because she’s visibly stronger looking/more muscular than the average woman? It sounds kind of arbitrary where the cutoff point really is in this case.

    Now contrast that with a woman who takes testosterone to give her an advantage (either with her knowledge or not, such as was done in East Germany in the past). It’s not genetics at that point, it’s gaming the system, but it should be something that could be caught (albeit very difficult to catch, given the above). (And some of the East German athletes have had serious issues after their competing days were over because of these treatments.)

    Another point – it is about winning, and that holds as much to Semenya’s competitors as to herself. The other women running are going to always make a stink about it because they’ve focused their life on winning these events. Their problem is that their timing was bad, because their prime time in life when they might win is also Semenya’s. But cheer up – you can go to the press and play up this issue.

    One more point – how often has this come up? Is the higher testosterone level the only reason that she’s winning, or is it that she’s also focused her life on winning in these events? Higher testosterone levels aren’t a guarantee of victory, merely one thing that can give her an advantage. She has focus, she’s trained for this, and she’s mentally able to handle the mind games that are going on at this level.

    I’m not disputing the need for a way to celebrate women in athletics and treat them as first class athletes (which is something that is really lacking in today’s world), but finding the fair solution is very elusive, and between the uniqueness of her situation and the way the system has been gamed in the past it’s a very slippery slope.

  3. sean says:

    Take this with a grain of salt because I’m not a completely gender normative male, but this comment has some irony for me and I suspect for other men. The irony (maybe that’s not the right word) is that this is how many men feel all the time. No matter how hard you try, how much you train, how macho you act there always seems to be someone else out there who is more manly, more macho, better at your chosen sport, younger, older, more mature. And while men enjoy competition to a degree, every now and then a guy comes a long – a Tiger Woods, a Wayne Gretzky, a Bruce Lee, a Gaston St. Pierre who just seems so unbeatable, that it seems to call into question your own masculinity. Some men get around this by cheering those men on, by looking up to them, but that’s hard to do if you don’t feel like you have any spot on their spectrum.

    I remember once going to a rodeo. I’m actually 6′ and 200 lbs (I don’t think of myself as big I used to be rail thin, but everyone else does). All of these guys at the rodeo seemed like they were from some different cowboy planet – all 6’4″ minimum 225-230 lbs and just built like bulls. It’ was like God had clicked on them and enlarged them all by about 20%. I’ve had a go at being male (while dreaming of being female), but these guys made me feel like I was a different species. These guys seemed to me to be “on the very fringe of the normal athlete MALE biological composition.” I doubt they were YYY supermales, but it seemed that way.

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