Last night I had a massive argument with my partner about a 25-year-old female athlete, Caster Semenya.
The South African 800m runner has been thrust into the savage centre of a gender politics row playing out on the world stage. And she had made her way to our dinner table.
Semenya has done nothing wrong. Yet she is being treated worse than some doping athletes by people who believe the Olympian should not be allowed to compete tonight due to certain intersex physiological traits normally associated with men.
There is no denying Semenya’s powerful physique. The sportswoman has a striking muscular frame. She also has testosterone levels three times higher than the usual level found in women.
But she is a woman. She was raised a woman. She identifies as a woman. And being intersex does not buy any athlete a one-way ticket to gold.
Semenya caught the globe’s attention when she annihilated her competition in the 800m race at the 2009 World Championships.
Soon after, questions began swirling about her gender and a secret investigation was launched – the results of which were shamefully leaked to the media.
She was found to have internal testes instead of a uterus and ovaries and a condition named hyperandrogenism, meaning she produces high levels of testosterone.
With her personal, medical information out in the open, Semenya found herself being picked apart by the public, turning her into the involuntary poster child of intersex athletes.
At the time, she addressed the controversy, declaring she had been “subjected to unwarranted and invasive scrutiny of the most intimate and private details of my being.”
In 2011, her sport’s governing body introduced rules forcing female athletes with naturally occurring high testosterone to either give up competing or undergo hormone treatment.
But this was overturned last year by the Court of Arbitration for Sport after another athlete with the condition, Dutee Chand, challenged the guidelines as unscientific, invasive and potentially harmful. The court agreed: the scientific evidence around testosterone was lacking.
This was monumental for female athletes like Semenya. And tonight, she will unleash her full, natural ability in the 800m race (11.45pm AEST).
She is the hot favourite to win.
But many claim she does not deserve a place on track. They argue on physiological grounds, she has an unfair advantage on her rivals. Some confused individuals are even calling her a “male”.
My problem with this argument is that almost every star athlete has some form of a biological advantage. This can be said for gymnast Simone Biles, sprinter Usain Bolt and swimmers Michael Phelps and Katie Ledecky.
All possess natural qualities — be it height, huge limbs, lung capacity, power, bounce, speed — that give them a big edge over their rivals. Not to mention there can be other socioeconomic factors at play.
The Mamamia Out Loud Podcast discussed exactly that this week. (post continues after audio)
Anyone competing now will be pretty miffed to be at their peak at a time when such megastars are dominating their sports.
But we don’t hear anyone saying it is “unfair”. We don’t hear anyone saying we need to make a separate category for long-limbed athletes. Because that would be ridiculous.
Why should we treat Semenya’s naturally occurring high levels of testosterone as something to be penalised?
We can’t pick and choose what bodies, what natural qualities, are unacceptable in the sporting world.
Semenya’s case has emerged at a time where our understanding of our longheld binary gender categories is shifting and widening. She is a victim of gender politics.
In an interview with the BBC, she said “I am not a fake. I am natural. I am just being Caster… I just want to be me.”
Can we at least allow her that much? Because a world in which we make decisions based on biology is one I don’t want to live in. I choose ethics.
High levels of testosterone may give a female athlete an edge but it doesn’t make her the top female athlete on the planet.
Chand is an example of this: the Indian runner’s Olympic dreams started and ended after just one 100m heat on the weekend. She placed 50th out of 64 runners.
And as things stand, Semenya is still two seconds off the world record set in 1983.
Semenya is an excellent runner, and she got to where she is with a lot of grit and hard work.
And as she sets off tonight, I’ll be rooting for her.
Mamamia Out Loud is the weekly podcast with what women are talking about. This week it’s an Olympics extravaganza. Subscribe in iTunes or listen here:
(Feature image: Getty)