Caster Semenya and the Limits of Binary Gender

We segregate men and women in sports for good reason. How we do that is complicated.

“Caster Semenya takes silver in the 800m” by Jon Connell is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

South African runner Caster Semenya has been fighting for years against rules that insist she’s too much of a man to compete as a woman. This week, she appears to have lost.

The Court of Arbitration for Sport’s panel of three judges gave a complex verdict and “dismissed both requests for arbitration” from Semenya and the governing body of track and field.

In a landmark judgment, the court said the IAAF’s proposed rules on athletes with “differences of sex development (DSD)” are discriminatory but should be applied.

The judges ruled 2-1 that “on the basis of the evidence submitted by the parties, such discrimination is a necessary, reasonable and proportionate means of achieving the IAAF’s aim of preserving the integrity of female athletics in the Restricted Events.”

Semenya, a two-time Olympic champion in the 800 meters, will now be forced to medicate to suppress her testosterone levels if she wants to defend her world title in September in Doha, Qatar.

Still, the CAS panel “strongly encouraged” the IAAF to note its concerns when it applies the rules — which the judges believe might have to be modified in future to be fair.

“Indeed, it may be that, on implementation and with experience, certain factors may be shown to affect the overall proportionality of the DSD Regulations,” the court said.

The IAAF went into the case with the scientific argument that female runners with high testosterone levels have an unfair advantage in events from 400 meters to the mile.

However, the judges want the IAAF to apply the rules only up to the 800 because the evidence was not clear that women with hyperandrogenism have a competitive advantage in the 1,500.

“The CAS Panel suggested that the IAAF consider deferring the application of the DSD Regulations to these events (1,500 and the mile) until more evidence is available,” the court said.

That could give Semenya a route to compete at the world championships without taking medication. She was the bronze medalist in the 1,500 at the 2017 worlds in London.

A further appeal is possible to Switzerland’s supreme court in Lausanne. Federal judges rarely overturn CAS decisions but can intervene if legal process was abused.

USA Today, “Caster Semenya loses appeal in controversial case over IAAF’s testosterone rules

No one expects this to be overturned. Many are, understandably, outraged by the ruling and, especially, the rules themselves.

Lindsay Crouse of the NYT:

While there’s no easy answer to the broader debate about who belongs women’s sports, it’s spectacularly unfair that Semenya has had to endure this toxic combination of racism, sexism and homophobia; the court even admitted that its ruling discriminates against her. No one disagrees.
We can only speculate about how she feels when she’s forced to expose her own body to astonishing degrees of invasive scrutiny, and is called a man and far worse. That’s because she keeps quiet.

But we do know how she works: She races to win, she shakes her opponents’ hands and she follows the rules. Meanwhile, she stays true to herself. And she perseveres.

Her ability to behave like this — to endure — is a trait of real champions, athletic and otherwise. We should celebrate her demonstration of character just as we do for our other heroes. Her fight is just as great a feat. As is her athleticism; it’s a shame that we hear more about the hormone levels of one of the most decorated female athletes today than her achievements.

Paradoxically, Semenya has become one of the world’s most visible female athletes right when she’s being told she can’t be one. She’s impeccable (she has to be), exhibiting all the qualities of sportsmanship we look for in athletes, regardless of whom they race.

What’s more remarkable is that, Semenya, and her determination to keep showing up, are forcing us to pay attention to female athletes, and the extent to which we value them.

NYT, “When One of the World’s Most Visible Athletes Is Told She Can’t Be One

WaPo columnist Monica Hesse:

For about a decade — a time that Olympic historians may someday classify as “the Michael Phelps era” — I’ve been reading about the unique genetic blessings bestowed upon the greatest swimmer to ever live. Phelps possesses a disproportionately vast wingspan, for example. Double-jointed ankles give his kick unusual range. In a quirk that borders on supernatural, Phelps apparently produces just half the lactic acid of a typical athlete — and since lactic acid causes fatigue, he’s simply better equipped at a biological level to excel in his sport.

I’m thinking of those stories, because I’m thinking about the ways Michael Phelps was treated as wondrous marvel. Nobody suggested he should be forced to have corrective surgery on his double-jointed ankles, nobody decided he should take medication to boost his lactic levels.
Which brings us to this week, and to Caster Semenya.

Semenya is an in­cred­ibly powerful runner from South Africa, a two-time Olympic champion. She has also been the subject of controversy since the beginning of her career a decade ago. Semenya is believed to have an intersex condition, though she doesn’t publicly speak about it: Her body allegedly produces testosterone at a higher level than most women. On Wednesday, the Court of Arbitration for Sport ruled that if Semenya wanted to continue to compete, she would be required to take medications to lower it.

The CAS, which was upholding a previous ruling by the International Association of Athletics Federations, admitted that the decision was tantamount to discrimination. But, a statement read, “discrimination is a necessary, reasonable and proportionate means of achieving the IAAF’s aim of preserving the integrity of female athletics.”

[…]

The CAS ruling is based on the idea that gender can be measured, that it exists in a vial.

The court seems to buy into the concept that there are exactly two genders, and that there’s a bright line dividing them: If Caster Semenya has 4.99 nanomoles of testosterone per liter, the “integrity of female athletics” will be preserved, but at 5.01, it won’t.

[…]

While we’re talking about the diversity of gender experiences in the field of athletics, we could be talking about a lot of different things. We could be talking about how hordes of aspiring gymnasts have their careers cut short when their genetics cause them to grow taller than 5 feet, and we could talk about the talented would-be female basketball players who spend puberty waiting for a growth spurt that never comes. Competitive athletics are full of biological advantages, both massive and minute: I held multiple swimming records as a kid because of a glitch in my hip that granted me a sublime breaststroke.

We could talk about the medieval-sounding “sex verification test” that Semenya was first forced to undergo in 2009, and how the details of it were murky, and how it’s hard to imagine such a test as anything other than humiliating. “I have been subjected to unwarranted and invasive scrutiny of the most intimate and private details of my being,” she said at the time.

We could talk about all the prurient, invasive, and frequently racist ways we have talked about Caster Semenya over the past 10 years. “It is clear that she is a woman but maybe not 100 percent,” Pierre Weiss, then-secretary general of the IAFF, said of her in 2011. He didn’t specify how it was clear, or whom it was clear to, or what percentage of womanhood he was willing to give her.
Most of all, we could talk about what it means to be a woman. And what it means to insist someone is not a woman. And why Michael Phelps was treated like a marvel, and Caster Semenya is treated like a mutant.

— “We celebrated Michael Phelps’s genetic differences. Why punish Caster Semenya for hers?

Karren Brady, a British MP and sporting executive, agrees that the ruling is heartbreaking but nonetheless defends it:

In the face of this ruling, some have asked — and you can see why — whether athletes born with unusually long legs, say, will need to have them shortened in order to run on a level playing field with less-blessed athletes.

There is also irony, isn’t there, in the fact that athletes competing in a sport with some of the toughest anti-doping laws around will be required to TAKE drugs to suppress natural levels of testosterone? This seems wrong.

But I agree with the ruling. I do not think it is fair for female athletes who have the advantage of an elevated male hormone count to compete with women who do not.

I feel for Semenya. She is a brilliant athlete and totally dedicated. She is also a three-time world champion over 800 metres — and the 28-year-old has won her past 29 races over the distance.

She has not taken steroids or hormones to enhance her performance. This is just the way she was born, which is why she refers to her DSD as a “gift”.

Tennis legend Martina Navratilova backed her this week, branding the ruling unfair and saying: “She has done nothing wrong and it is awful that she will now have to take drugs to be able to compete. General rules should not be made from exceptional cases.”

Martina has been accused of being transphobic when she suggested it was potentially cheat-ing for transgender athletes to compete in women’s sports.

Her point is that it is unfair for people who were once biologically men to compete as women.

Some suggested that a solution would be a “protected” category based on hormone levels, rather than gender. But the idea of creating a third category for people with DSD is ridiculous, as the pool would be so small.
Unfortunately, there is no perfect solution.

Semenya did not ask to be born with additional testosterone. But it is true that as long as she has it, the playing field is not level.
Her hormones make her unbeatable, which is not fair to other athletes dedicating their lives to training and knowing they can come no better than second.

— The Sun, “I feel for Olympic champion Caster Semenya in hormone row, but the ruling is right

My fiance and I were having this discussion yesterday. She adamantly sides with Navratilova and Crouse, contending that since Semenya did nothing to artificially increase her testosterone levels, she should be allowed to compete. That it’s no more unfair an advantage than Phelps’ long arms or Shaquille O’Neal’s height.

While I’m sympathetic to that argument, I ultimately reject it. We don’t tend to segregate athletic competition on the basis of height, weight, or wingspan. We do segregate men and women because, otherwise, women wouldn’t be able to compete in most sports.

The problem, which Hesse alludes to, is that this segregation operates on the misconception that there are exactly two sexes. In fact, we now understand that this isn’t the case. But, unless we create more categories for competition, preserving the concept of “women’s sports” requires some process for adjudicating who gets to compete as a woman. Testosterone levels is a rather imperfect way to do this but it’s what we have.

Further, Let’s Run co-founder Robert Johnson brings up an important point mostly missing from this discussion:

The mainstream reporting on Semenya is very misleading, to say the least so let me share a few key facts that you likely haven’t read anywhere else.

1) Caster Semenya Has XY Chromosomes
It’s absolutely mind-boggling that virtually every major outlet in the world reporting the Court of Arbitration for Sport ruling yesterday has failed to mention one of the most important facts of the entire case. Caster Semenya has XY chromosomes. It was generally accepted by people following the case closely that Semenya was XY, but now it’s been confirmed as fact since the CAS press release specifically says, “The DSD covered by the Regulations are limited to athletes with ’46 XY DSD’ – i.e. conditions where the affected individual has XY chromosomes.” If she wasn’t XY, the IAAF’s regulations wouldn’t apply to her and she’d have no reason to challenge them.

Because of the glaring XY omission, many across the globe ended up reading opening paragraphs like this from the front page of the New York Times:

Female track athletes with naturally elevated levels of testosterone must decrease the hormone to participate in certain races at major competitions like the Olympics, the highest court in international sports said Wednesday in a landmark ruling amid the pitched debate over who can compete in women’s events.

If I had been writing for the NY Times, I’d have added just six words and there would have been no confusion as to what really happened.

Intersex track athletes with XY chromosomes and naturally elevated levels of testosterone must decrease the hormone to participate in certain races versus women at major competitions like the Olympics, the highest court in international sports said Wednesday in a landmark ruling amid the pitched debate over who can compete in women’s events.

This is an incredibly complex issue, and one of the reasons for that complexity is that the IAAF has two categories in which athletes can compete: male and female. The problem is, human biology doesn’t always neatly divide into male or female. Some people — intersex people — have traits of both sexes. Semenya isn’t male, but in addition to Y chromosomes, she is believed to have internal testes and lack a womb or ovaries — characteristics we don’t traditionally associate with females. However, you’d likely never know that from reading the coverage in the mainstream press on Wednesday.

The issue is complex but nuance matters. Our own title on the homepage of LetsRun.com about the news was originally incorrect. Originally our headline on the homepage said, “Caster Semenya Loses CAS Case, Can Only Compete In 800 If She Suppresses Testosterone.” A visitor pointed out that title was inaccurate as Semenya was free to compete in the “open” or “men’s” category without suppressing her testosterone. So we changed it  to “Caster Semenya Loses CAS Case, Can Only Compete In Women’s 800 If She Suppresses Testosterone.”

— Let’s Run, “What No One Is Telling You About Caster Semenya: She Has XY Chromosomes

Obviously, this is an incredibly emotional issue in addition to a fairness issue. Semenya identifies as a woman and is being told that, for the purposes of competition, she’s not one. That’s incredibly hurtful. It’s probably also infused with bigotry. Strong women have long been told that they “look like men” and are otherwise not feminine. Add in the fact that this has been especially true for black women judged by white standards of beauty and it’s even more upsetting.

Still, none of that gets us past the fact that we segregate sports based on sex for a reason and that requires classifying athletes based on sex. And, distasteful though it may be, Johnson is right:

Many people who support Semenya use the argument that elite sports are often about genetic outliers dominating.Usain Bolt had really long legs and Michael Phelps had really long arms, so why can’t Semenya have really high testosterone?

That’s a bad analogy. Sports organizations don’t classify athletes by arm or leg length, but they do classify athletes by sex. If they didn’t, women wouldn’t have a chance to excel at the very top levels of sport as men’s world record are consistently 10-12% better than women’s world records in sports like track and swimming. In tennis, even a great like Serena Williams admits she couldn’t get a game off a top male pro like Andy Murray. If sports organizations didn’t classify by sex, there would be almost zero female Olympians save for sports like maybe equestrian.
There is no human right to compete in a particular category of professional sports. Sports governing bodies exclude certain types of people from certain categories of sports all the time. In boxing, a 210-pound boxer can’t fight as a flyweight (112 lb max) as the flyweight would have little realistic chance of winning.

To say that an XY human can’t compete in the women’s category of professional sports unless they lower their testosterone below 5 nmol/L — a figure that is still 7.5 times the value of the average woman competing at the 2011 and 2013 track and field World Championships and a figure that not a single healthy woman born with XX chromosomes, ovaries, and producing estrogen at puberty can reach — isn’t a huge human rights travesty. It’s a protection of women’s sports.

It’s not a conclusion I feel good about. It punishes Semanya, who has done absolutely nothing wrong and who by all accounts is not only a fantastic athlete but a great sport. But it’s nonetheless right.

FILED UNDER: *FEATURED, Gender Issues, Sports
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Tony W says:

    We do segregate men and women because, otherwise, women wouldn’t be able to compete in most sports.

    This is true for some sports, not true for others. Golf, for example, is somewhat dependent on the ability to hit a driver 300+ yards, but you win or lose on the short game – and I guarantee every woman on the LPGA tour could outdrive me with their 7 iron. Bowling offers no advantage to those with more testosterone. Shooting, downhill skiing, freestyle snowboarding, etc. – no real differences.

    We still separate men and women for these sports, and I submit that it’s often more about men not wanting to lose to women than it is about creating a truly competitive environment. Our fragile egos must be defended!

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  2. grumpy realist says:

    It’s somewhat silly that in a lot of these sports we enshrine “naturalness” (no added hormones!) and then turn around and put these neat little boxes about what we consider “natural”. I suspect that this decision wouldn’t have come down were it not that there’s a direct link between “amount of testosterone body produces” and “strength and ability” so it is a bit of a thumb-on-the-scale case. And yeah, if we don’t carve out a way of distinguishing ‘from birth normal women” most female athletic contests are going to be dominated by transgenders and you’re going to see a near-total collapse in women’s athletics programs because who wants to watch/participate in a competition where you know from the beginning who’s going to win? (I also suspect that the cable TV viewing would drop considerably because of the “I’m not going to watch a freak” factor–don’t forget the sweet, sweet lure of money in these matters.)

    I’m grumpy enough to suggest we divvy the whole thing up into three classes: XY-with-testosterone over a certain limit, XX-with-testosterone-under-a-certain-limit , and Totally Open Class Free For All. Having the last would provide a place for genetic anomalies to compete and the increased competition possibilities would probably attract athletes from the other classes. Cowabunga!

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  3. Kit says:

    I’ve never been able to get this NBC News article from 2004 out of my mind. Basically, around the year 2000 a boy was born in Germany with the first documented case of a genetic mutation that bestowed super strength. I couldn’t find any further references. Still, it’s interesting to wonder what the sports world would do with such an athlete.

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  4. Slugger says:

    Individuals with XY chromosomes and female genitalia have androgen insensitivity syndrome https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/30970592.
    This means that their bodies are incapable of responding to testosterone, and their testosterone level may be irrelevant to their development unlike someone taking exogenous hormones. In other words, the testosterone does nothing in her body; it couldn’t even produce male pudenda.
    World class athletes are extreme outliers. I encountered a famous female athlete, married to a man, had given birth twice, in a store once. She was clearly off the scale for muscular development. If I’m a four out of ten for ripped muscles for men, she would have been a twelve. Even someone famed for pulchitrude like Katerina Witt was more muscular than 99% of guys.
    Humans who do not conform to a strict binary definition for phenotype or behavior are a minority, but they are not extremely rare.

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  5. MarkedMan says:

    It seems to me that Robert Johnson’s take is just about perfect, and his charge of journalistic malfeasance due to leaving out the XY Chromosome* part of the ruling is spot on. The comparison with Michael Phelps is incomplete. As James points out, we segregate running races based on sex, not on physique. The correct analogy is if Phelps came out as a woman, despite his XY chromosomes and genitalia, and wanted to compete as a female swimmer. To most of us this would seem too far. If we segregate due to sex at all, we have to have a definition of what separates the sexes, and it seems apparent that Phelps falls outside what can fairly be considered female. However, there are voices that would accuse those of us who feel that way of bigotry**, saying that the only thing that matters in gender is how the person declares themselves.

    In any classification system, there are borderline cases and the governing bodies need to make the hard calls. Personally, I think they made a reasonable one that draws the line as inclusively as possible and does not require much human judgement in the future.

    *For those who don’t know the significance of XY chromosomes here’s an excerpt from Wiki:

    The XY sex-determination system is the sex-determination system found in humans… In this system, the sex of an individual is determined by a pair of sex chromosomes. Females have two of the same kind of sex chromosome (XX), and are called the homogametic sex. Males have two different kinds of sex chromosomes (XY), and are called the

    **If you think I’m exaggerating about people calling for self-declaration being 100% sufficient for all things gender related, Andrew Sullivan reports a revealing exchange. He weighed in on the subject and pointed out that as a gay man he is sexually attracted to men and is not attracted to a woman no matter how much they insist they are male. He posted an excerpt from a feminist response that berated him for having a narrow mind and if he just opened up he would see that the self declared male was sexually attractive and desirable. Sullivan points out the irony that for almost all of his adult life he has been surrounded by family and co-religionists telling him that if he only looked deep within he would realize the error of his attraction to men and if he took off his blinders he would find that there he could also be attracted to women. And as soon as he sees society as a whole accept him for who is, he is attacked from the left on the exact same issue.

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  6. PJ says:

    We do segregate men and women because, otherwise, women wouldn’t be able to compete in most sports.

    And when a woman is able to compete again men, then there’s segregation…

    Olympic skeet was introduced in 1968, with men and women competing against each other until 1996. Because in 1992 a woman won. So, in 1996, only men were allowed to participate and in 2000 a female skeet event was introduced. That year Olympic trap was also segregated.

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  7. de stijl says:

    How is any of this her fault?

    Fox News utterly muffed this the other day and presumed that Ms. Semenya was transgender because of her appearance, and thus assigned a whole bunch of assumptions to her, and commented on that ham-handedly. It’s just what they do.

    Again, how is any of this her fault? She’s done nothing provocative besides being really good at her sport and appearing as not feminine enough to be acceptable. She is demonstrably externally female (which she had to prove in the most humiliating fashion via physical examination). She is definitively not externally inter-sex.

    @grumpy realist:

    It’s somewhat silly that in a lot of these sports we enshrine “naturalness” (no added hormones!) and then turn around and put these neat little boxes about what we consider “natural”.

    This story is interesting in a macro sense, but specific to one person. What is the prevalence? Will this be an issue forever, or just right now?

    And, mostly, I’d argue it’s just about reactionaries failing to have the wherewithal to cope with gender fluidity in a nuanced way. Defining boxes and assigning folks to those boxes is paramount in one particularly strident world view.

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  8. de stijl says:

    @PJ:

    Olympic skeet was introduced in 1968, with men and women competing against each other until 1996.

    Skeet depends on twitch reaction speed and being able to track and lead your shots without too much conscious thought so as to slow you down to distract you from setting up for the next shot. It’s as much flow as it is skill. So apparently, a great candidate for universal participation.

    I could sorta understand the impulse behind splitting it by gender just to increase the pool and the medals awarded. The archery and shooting events may not be helped by splitting the pool, though. The motivated audience is marginally really low.

    (Actress Geena Davis was a pretty good archer and made the Olympic trials in 2000.)

    https://siouxcityjournal.com/entertainment/television/geena-davis-remembers-her-olympic-run-classic-films/article_31297ad8-f64b-50f7-a4c2-c9679345a09a.html

    I’d imagine there was a substantial skill gap between Olympic medal contenders and aspirants (pool size is small) and Ms. Davis was in the latter camp and had zero chance to advance to the former, but, still, that is very impressive.

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  9. MarkedMan says:

    @de stijl:

    How is any of this her fault?

    I’m not hearing anyone say she is at fault for anything (but of course, I don’t watch Fox…).

    If it was your responsibility to determine whether someone qualified to compete in women’s athletics, what metrics would you use?

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  10. grumpy realist says:

    @Slugger: I wonder if there’s ever been the case of an athlete who was a chimera, so if you tested her left hand you’d get XX genotyping and if you tested her right hand you’d get XY genotyping…

    I must have read too much sci-fi because all this hoo-haa just reminds me of Melissa Scott’s Shadow Man, where people have genetically mutated over the years into seven different sexes, and the action takes place on a planet which still insists that there only exist two sexes, male and female…great book. Then you’ve got the Usual Suspect over at TAC who goes into screaming hysterics over transgenders…..I told him once it was hard to tell whether he was more upset about transgenderism or the fact that the present mechanism for doing it is imperfect–would he have the same attitude if a person could completely change over, down to replacing every XY by an XX (or vice versa)? Something to do with his view of How The Universe Should Be Ordered with XX and XY. One reason I love women like Ms. Semenya is because she blows a hole the size of a battleship in his neat God-ordained orderings.

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  11. James Joyner says:

    @Tony W:

    Golf, for example, is somewhat dependent on the ability to hit a driver 300+ yards, but you win or lose on the short game – and I guarantee every woman on the LPGA tour could outdrive me with their 7 iron. Bowling offers no advantage to those with more testosterone. Shooting, downhill skiing, freestyle snowboarding, etc. – no real differences.

    I think you may be right in some cases, like shooting. But it’s demonstrably not true with golf. Indeed, on literally the first day of this blog, I wrote about Anika Sorenstam’s disastrous attempt to play golf against men.

    @PJ: Yes, that makes sense. There’s a strong cultural reaction to “beaten by a girl” even in cases where sex would seem irrelevant.

    @de stijl:

    How is any of this her fault?

    Obviously, it’s not. The question is one of fairness, not fault.

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  12. de stijl says:

    @MarkedMan

    If it was your responsibility to determine whether someone qualified to compete in women’s athletics, what metrics would you use?

    I would not require Semenya to submit to hormonal manipulation to compete – that is prima facie overly intrusive and grotesque.

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  13. de stijl says:

    @James Joyner:

    The question is one of fairness, not fault.

    Unitertwine (totally a cromulent word) those two.

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  14. Franklin says:

    I read years ago that women had better ultra-endurance, that there was a theoretical point in (for example) distance running where the best woman could outrun the best man.

    Regardless, I think any non-open division has problems. We separate kids sports by ages or grades, but we know full well not everybody goes through puberty at the same time. Ask me how good I was at rebounding when other kids were more than a foot taller than me! (Not very, but I mostly caught up to those kids … after I gave up basketball.)

    This particular case Semenya is quite the challenge. She has more testosterone than almost any woman, but less than almost any man. She would be competitive with high school boys but not college men.

    It’s the only case I know of where the governing body is requiring an athlete to *take* drugs, in order to reduce her testosterone levels. I really feel for her, but also for those women who have no physical chance of competing with her.

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  15. de stijl says:

    By far, the best thing about this (likely unresolvable for now) question, is that no one is going towards obvious observations and conclusions.

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  16. MarkedMan says:

    @de stijl: All due respect, but you dodged the question. You’ve made it clear that you think the metrics they’ve chosen are hideously incorrect, And there are many that agree. However, I haven’t seen any of them (or you) offer an alternative.

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  17. de stijl says:

    @MarkedMan:

    Because any declarative action is really intrusive. I cannot countenance dosing her with hormones just so she can compete from here on out. Like I said before – grotesque.

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  18. de stijl says:

    @MarkedMan:

    Remember a few days ago when you were hell-belt to label liberalism as defined by “dramatic change”?

    We did not box you in. (Dick move, btw.)

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  19. MarkedMan says:

    @de stijl: I’m not sure what you mean by “boxing” you in. This is a hard call. I think it was reasonable, and you don’t. Since it is a hard call, I’m open to the possibility that I’m wrong, which is why I’m genuinely curious as to what other metrics there are. So I asked. But I wasn’t trying to box you in. It’s perfectly legitimate to say, “I don’t know what the right metrics are, but they can’t be the ones chosen because Semenya’s specific case proves they were unfair.”

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  20. de stijl says:

    The art of disengaging. I had zero desire to engage then, why is now a better time to try to snuggle?

    It’s not going to reciprocated – stop trying.

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  21. DrDaveT says:

    @MarkedMan:

    However, there are voices that would accuse those of us who feel that way of bigotry, saying that the only thing that matters in gender is how the person declares themselves.

    Yeah, but they would be committing a fallacy (or arguing in bad faith) if they did that, because you weren’t talking about gender — you were talking about sex. We’ve had the long conversation about the difference between those two in other threads.

    At the moment, the brightest available line (if one chooses to distinguish between the sexes for purposes of athletic competition) is “do you have Y chromosomes?”. If yes, you compete as a man; if not, you compete as a woman. Regardless of gender, hormone levels, etc. That would be unfortunate for Ms. Semenya, whom I admire greatly, but I can’t think of a more fair approach that wouldn’t essentially eliminate sporting opportunities for women.

    (That said, I would love to see men trying to compete against women at balance beam…)

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  22. Gustopher says:

    Are there so many intersex Olympic atheletes that we need to have a complicated ruling on this?

    Born a woman, raised a woman… she’s a woman. Go forth and run. She’s not taking hormones, or doing anything wrong.

    Maybe it’s not fair to the other athletes, but it wasn’t fair to the people competing against Phelps that he was a bizarre mutant — if they were born ten years earlier or later, their careers would not have been eclipsed. Life isn’t always fair.

    When women’s sports are dominated by intersex athletes, then, maybe we would need to look closely at it, and maybe treating her as a woman will be found to have been the wrong decision, and all her medals will have a little asterisk by them on the official webpages. And that will be fine.

    I don’t know what to do about someone XX, intersex, raised as a man, who discovers that he could really kick ass in women’s competitions and wants to be reclassified, but unless I am grossly mistaken about the occurrence, I don’t think we need to worry about it for a while. Or transgender folks.

    Maybe the next Bruce Jenner will transition earlier, either before her career or during his-to-her career. Deal with it when it comes up. Not all theoretical cases need to be handled*.

    ——
    *: As a software engineer, it pained me to type that.

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  23. Gustopher says:

    @DrDaveT: I can also totally understand this argument. There’s no perfect solution.

    The harm to someone who is merely recognized as the second fastest woman alive rather than the fastest seems like a smaller harm than not letting Semenya compete. Lacking a good solution, and being pretty sure it’s a one off case we won’t see again for a while, I’d go with that.

    Both options are flawed. Which one seems kinder? Is it significantly more flawed? Will it cause later problems that can’t be dealt with? No and no? Go with being kind.

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  24. MarkedMan says:

    @DrDaveT: Definitely a clear metric and one that is defensible. Since this topic came up I’ve been doing a little background reading, (not nearly as much as I expect the people who made the decision did) and it turns out that there are a fair number of very rare cases where women have a Y chromosome. (In addition to XY, XXY, XXXY and so in). And in any of these cases some people present as obvious women and some as obvious men. I suspect the decision makers went a bit more deeply than simply “Y = disqualification” and tried to take male advantage into account.

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  25. de stijl says:

    @Gustopher

    Born a woman, raised a woman… she’s a woman. Go forth and run. She’s not taking hormones, or doing anything wrong.

    If she wants to run again competitively she will need to take hormones to make her into someone she is not if she wants to compete at the highest level of the sport she is really good at.

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  26. Gustopher says:

    @grumpy realist:

    One reason I love women like Ms. Semenya is because she blows a hole the size of a battleship in his neat God-ordained orderings.

    All praise the Slacker God who said “Eh, close enough. I got 95-99% of people right, and the vast majority of the rest pretty close. They’ll figure it out.”

    Somewhere, possibly linked to from someone at OTB, maybe even you, I read about the woman who had all her organs reversed. I’m pretty sure God The Slacker thought that was fine — “Appendix and liver on the right in 99.99% of cases, that’s pretty good.”

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  27. Gustopher says:

    @de stijl: I think we are in agreement that making her take drugs to suppress her natural hormones is the wrong decision.

    Perhaps that should have been “Go forth and run without having to drug yourself”

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  28. de stijl says:

    In order to make everything “fair” we demand this participant inject estrogen into her body against her will.

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  29. DrDaveT says:

    @MarkedMan:

    it turns out that there are a fair number of very rare cases where women have a Y chromosome

    Yes, but when you say ‘women’ there, you are assuming your conclusion. Did you mean gender, or sex? There are certainly cases of XXY, XXXY, etc. as you note. Most such people have health issues that would probably preclude their ever being world-class athletes, but for those who are, the question of biological sex remains. Most of the articles I saw about XXY referred to those individuals as males.

    …none of which is meant as rebuttal, but merely as confirmation that it’s complicated. I cannot object to Gustopher’s suggestion that we do what is kind, though in my work with children’s competitions I have found that they universally care more about fairness than kindness. Perhaps this says something profound about human nature.

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  30. EddieInCA says:

    Pure anecdote…

    I went golfing today. On the driving range warming up a few stalls over was a large woman booming drives further than any of the rest of us – all men. I mean this woman was CRUSHING that little white ball. Keep in mind, I’m a 6 handicap. I can consistently hit a drive that carries 260+ Well, this woman was hitting driver, three wood, five wood, and long irons better and further than I ever have. Granted she was larger than I am, but not by much. She was 6-2, maybe 195, and I go 5-10, 190.

    I got a closer look at the woman a short time later. It was Caitlyn Jenner. She’s 69.

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  31. de stijl says:

    @EddieInCA:

    How does a 69 [nice!] year old have the hips and shoulders for this? I boldly declare you juiced this story, and no 69 [nice!] yo could have done what you described. Hit it 260+yards. No effin’ way!

    Anyone that old can be a decent golfer, but not a “good” golfer. Put it maybe in the the fareway 200 – 215 yards.

    Never would have expected Caitlyn at 69 [nice!] – no friggin way. I’m 55 and I look like a hillbilly is assaulting my face with dynamite and acid. Well, Hollywood people have the best plastic surgeons.

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  32. de stijl says:

    Let’s concoct a convoluted schema that prevents exactly one women from competing without regular hormone injections and mandated blood testing. That sounds fair. We’ll go with that.

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  33. James Joyner says:

    @Gustopher:

    Are there so many intersex Olympic atheletes that we need to have a complicated ruling on this?

    @de stijl:

    Let’s concoct a convoluted schema that prevents exactly one women from competing

    Alan Abramson points to multiple cases of athletes with 46 XY DSD competing in and dominating the women’s sport. Semenya is just the most successful and well-known because she’s been dominating the sport for over a decade.

    As to the horrors of drug injection—which was my instinct as well from the above reports—I’m now gathering that simply taking a standard birth control pill will typically reduce testosterone levels to within the competitive limits. That doesn’t strike me as a draconian measure to ensure fairness.

    The bottom line here is that, while Semenya identifies as a woman and deserves to be treated as one by society, she’s biologically intersex. From a recent NIH article:

    The 46,XY disorders of sex development (46,XY DSD) are characterized by atypical or female external genitalia, caused by incomplete intrauterine masculinization with or without the presence of Müllerian structures. Male gonads are identified in the majority of 46,XY DSD patients, but in some of them no gonadal tissue is found. Complete absence of virilization results in normal female external genitalia and these patients generally seek medical attention at pubertal age, due to the absence of breast development and/or primary amenorrhea. 46,XY DSD can result either from decreased synthesis of testosterone or DHT or from impairment of androgen action.

    […]

    The term disorders of sex development (DSD) includes congenital conditions in which development of chromosomal, gonadal or anatomical sex is atypical. This nomenclature has been proposed to replace terms such as intersex, pseudohermaphroditism and sex reversal (5,6). These terms, previously used to describe the disorders of sex development, are potentially offensive to the patients and the consensus on the management of intersex disorders recommends a new nomenclature that will be followed in this chapter (5). The proposed changes in terminology aim to integrate upcoming advances in molecular genetics in new DSD classification (7)

    The 46,XY disorders of sex development (46,XY DSD) are characterized by atypical or female external genitalia, caused by incomplete intrauterine masculinization with or without the presence of Müllerian structures. Male gonads are identified in the majority of 46,XY DSD patients, but in some of them no gonadal tissue is found. Complete absence of virilization results in normal female external genitalia and these patients generally seek medical attention at pubertal age, due to the absence of breast development and/or primary amenorrhea. 46,XY DSD can result either from decreased synthesis of testosterone or DHT or from impairment of androgen action (8).

    Further, from the same article, testosterone certainly seems to be the key:

    Patients present female-like or atypical genitalia at birth, with the presence of a blind vaginal pouch, intra-abdominal or inguinal testes and epididymides, vasa deferentia, seminal vesicles and ejaculatory ducts. Most affected males are raised as females (277) (278) (279), but some have less severe defects in virilization and are raised as males (275). Virilization in subjects with 17b-HSD3 deficiency occurs at the time of expected puberty. This late virilization is usually a consequence of the presence of testosterone in the circulation as a result of the conversion of androstenedione to testosterone by some other 17b-HSD isoenzyme (presumably 17b-HSD 5) in extra-gonadal tissue and, occasionally, of the secretion of testosterone by the testes when levels of LH are elevated in subjects with some residual 17b-HSD3 function (275). However, the discrepancy between the failure of intrauterine masculinization and the virilization that occurs at the time of expected puberty is poorly understood. A limited capacity to convert androstenedione into testosterone in the fetal extragonadal tissues may explain the impairment of virilization of the external genitalia in the newborn. Bilateral orchiectomy resulted in a clear reduction of androstenedione levels indicating that the main origin of this androgen is the testis (275) (278). 46,XY DSD phenotype is sufficiently variable in 17b-HSD3 deficiency to cause problems in accurate diagnosis, particularly in distinguishing it from partial androgen insensitivity syndrome (PAIS) (280) (277).

    Laboratory diagnosis is based on elevated serum levels of androstenedione and estrone and low levels of testosterone and estradiol resulting in elevated androstenedione/testosterone and estrone/ estradiol ratios or low (or low testosterone/androstenedione and estradiol/estrone ratios) indicating impairment in the conversion of 17-keto into 17-hydroxysteroids. Testosterone/Androstenedione ratio of 0.4±0.2 was found in prepubertal patients with 17b-HSD3 deficiency after hCG stimulation. Based on these data, a T/A ratio below <0.8 is suggestive of 17b-HSD3 deficiency (273). At the time of expected puberty, serum LH and testosterone levels rise in all affected males and testosterone levels may reach the normal adult male range (281) (279).

    Oh, and estrogen replacement therapy starting at puberty is the standard treatment for those socially identifying as female. It not only helps them live more fully as women but wards off an inordinately high cancer risk those with 46 XY DSD otherwise face.

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  34. Tyrell says:

    @Tony W: One major sport where women compete right beside men is motorsports. This has been going on for sometime. Danica Patrick brought a lot of attention to it and probably increased the interest of women. Her record as a driver is mixed. Look at the women in drag racing – years of success.

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  35. James Joyner says:

    @Tyrell: Yes, but motorsports aren’t athletic competition. Women likely have an advantage in drag racing, given that it’s mostly about the start and they tend to have quicker reaction times. And it’s baffling that there are more women jockeys in horse racing, where being small and light is a decided advantage.

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  36. MarkedMan says:

    @James Joyner: Thanks for the article. When googling around I was frustrated by many of the things I read which didn’t make it clear whether the syndrome or condition they were describing applied to everyone with a specific non-standard chromosome structure, or only part of it. In XY, at least, it appears that there are a number of different ways it can present.

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  37. EddieInCA says:

    @de stijl:

    Here’s some further data points:

    https://www.golfdigest.com/story/caitlyn-jenner-plays-from-the-womens-tees-but-she-can-beat-you-from-anywhere-on-the-golf-course

    Swing looks damn good.

    https://www.independent.co.uk/news/people/caitlyn-jenners-golfing-handicap-removed-10296280.html

    https://www.golfdigest.com/story/watch-caitlyn-jenner-bomb-her-drive-in-first-tournament-as-a-woman

    Turns out she’s a 5 handicap. You can’t be a 5 handicap without being able to hit the crap out of the ball. Impressive, regardless of sex or gender.

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  38. Tyrell says:

    There is the recent controversy of power lifter Mary Gregory*. After breaking many records, some women complained that what they have is a “male body with male physiology setting world records and winning a women’s event in power lifting”.
    Obviously this sport is different from sports such as golf, tennis, and softball in terms of power derived from muscle mass.
    So it seems that some sports should be separate to maintain credibility and fairness. Certainly some sports should be more open to both. A woman kicker on major college teams and in the NFL is certainly reasonable: leg strength is a factor, but also skill and experience. A woman linebacker? Not so practical.

    *“Transgender weightlifter smashes women’s records, sparking backlash from Olympians” (Alex Lasker, AOL)

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  39. Andre Kenji de Sousa says:

    @Tyrell:

    One major sport where women compete right beside men is motorsports.

    Motosports is not athletics. Besides that, the last woman to win a Formula 1 race happened in 1980, and the number of women competing on Nascar and Formula Indy is small. One could argue that motorsports should have women leagues.

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  40. de stijl says:

    @EddieInCA:

    That’s a solid swing. Torque and torsion and uncoiled perfectly. I can’t do her swing – I got taught never let you left arm break at the elbow and now it’s just muscle memory. It’s way better on the lower back to break slightly, but if I try I can’t hit the ball solid – a mishit is likely and a total whiff can happen – too many moving parts for my brain to coordinate it all.

    So now I’m an old guy who hits is down the middle and shoots 85 on a lucky day if I catch a few putts and then my back hurts for two days after.

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  41. de stijl says:

    @Andre Kenji de Sousa:

    One could argue that motorsports should have women leagues.

    There is one now (started this year). The W Series which is a feeder for Formula One.

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