Transgender athletes at the Olympics

Caster Semenya






In 2009, world champion 800m runner Caster Semenya was the subject of a huge media and public backlash, after rumours emerged that she had failed a gender test. A competitor in the same race, Elisa Cusma, said of Caster: “These kind of people should not run with us. For me, she’s not a woman. She’s a man.”

Caster told the BBC last year, “I don’t give a sh#% about athletics any more…. So running or not running, it’s the same story for me… I don’t have rights, let’s put it this way, in athletics I don’t have rights.”

I am sure Caster is a strong individual. You have to be, in order to dedicate the time and effort it requires to be an elite sportsperson. But those are the words of a woman who was at her breaking point, a woman who felt attacked and was hitting back.

There were reports earlier this year that the International Olympic Committee is considering new guidelines that would prevent women from competing if they have more than a certain level of testosterone in their bodies.

This is not about doctors giving sneaky injections to athletes under the table and trying to cover it up – that’s blatant cheating. No – these potential rules would effect women who are simply born that way.

Academic experts Rebecca Jordan-Young and Katrina Karkazis say that measuring testosterone levels is simply not the right way to go. They argue that:

“Testosterone is one of the most slippery markers that sports authorities have come up with yet. Yes, average testosterone levels are markedly different for men and women. But levels vary widely depending on time of day, time of life, social status and – crucially – one’s history of athletic training…

Yes, doping with testosterone will most likely improve your performance by increasing muscle size, strength and endurance. But you cannot predict how well athletes will do in a competition by knowing their relative testosterone levels. There is just too much variation in how bodies make and respond to testosterone – and testosterone is but one element of an athlete’s physiology.”

Now a lot of that makes sense but the lines of reason are only blurred further when you consider Keelin Godsey’s story.

Keelin Godsey

Keelin Godsey isn’t competing in the London 2012 Olympics. Keelin is 28, he lives in Massachusettes and he’s a world class hammer thrower. But despite setting a personal best of 231 feet 3 inches, during the qualifying rounds for the US Olympic team, Keelin was still 11 inches short of the last qualifier, Jessica Cosby. That’s right, Jessica.

While he identifies as male, Keelin is physically female and so competes against women in the hammer throw. Keelin has postponed gender reassignment surgery for years, in the hope of finally reaching his dream of representing his country at an Olympic Games. Now it seems, that’s unlikely to ever happen.

It’s a shattered dream and one which many athletes – who fell just short of the standard required to compete on the world’s biggest sporting stage – have to deal with. But imagine if things had gone differently for Keelin. Imagine if Keelin had managed to throw that extra 11 inches. What would the world’s reaction have been?

In an interview last month, Keelin’s mother Renee admitted to being worried about how her son would be treated if the spotlight of the world’s media was thrust upon him. The New York Times reported:

“The mother in me wants only positive, and I worry about Keelin being hurt,” Renee Godsey said.

She continued: “A lot of rules have been changed for Keelin to get this far, I understand that. And I understand that a lot of people are going to say that Keelin has advantages. But she was born a female and is still 100 percent female”…

In a conversation with a reporter, Renee Godsey frequently referred to “Keelin” instead of using pronouns and acknowledged that “of course it has been a transition, as it would be for any parent”.

“But Keelin is so strong,” Renee said. “Keelin is the bravest person I know.”

I have no doubt that Keelin is a strong individual. Realising that you don’t identify with the gender you were physically born as and communicating that to a society – which still doesn’t readily accept how you feel – would toughen you up pretty fast. But imagine how much the difficulty of that transition would be amplified, when it’s being made in the public spotlight. Imagine having to deny who you feel you are, in order to compete for a dream you desperately want.

I’m hesitant to put words into the mouths of Keelin’s friends and family – I don’t know them. But in addition to feeling Keelin’s disappointment, I would expect that their emotions are tapered with at least a slight sense of relief. Because if Keelin had made it to the London Olympics, as a competitor in the women’s hammer throw – the sorts of abuse that would have been hurled at him is unimaginable.

London 2012

The Olympics separate competitors down gender lines. Why? To recognise the role that sexual genetics play in determining a person’s physical capabilities and to ensure women are able to compete at sport’s highest levels.

But in a world now learning to accept that not everyone associates with the gender they are born with and with medical advances meaning we can assist those people to live the life they want to – how does that effect competitive sport?

There is no question that a level playing field is absolutely essential to maintaining public confidence in the outcome of sporting competitions. That’s why we have such strict rules governing the use of performance enhancing drugs; it’s about ensuring the integrity of the sports and protecting the achievements of the athletes.

I used to work for an Australian sports minister and she once said to me: “There’s more politics in sport than there is in politics.” She was 100 per cent right. And the same phrase applies ten fold, when we’re talking about the gendered politics of sport.

You can watch Caster Semenya compete in the semi-final of the women’s 800m tonight.

What do you think? Should there be testosterone tests for women who compete at the Olympics? Should transgender people be allowed to compete at the Olympics after they have had gender reassignment surgery?