The biological argument that Semenya lost

It is highly probable that the race that South African athlete Caster Semenya won at last week’s IAAF Diamond League event in Doha may be her last, at least in the 800-metre category.

She easily won the race in characteristic flair, claiming her 30th consecutive victory in 1min 54.98sec – the third-fastest of her career and the eighth-quickest outdoors of all time.

While she may not be the fastest of all time in the category, her mark in women’s sport will endure.

Perhaps the American great, Edwin Moses, captures it best in a recent issue of Time magazine that featured her as one of its 100 most influential people of the year. He wrote that Semenya’s “is a singular historical contribution to our understanding of biological sex.”

Ed Moses is a big deal for those of us of a certain age and is probably not comparable to Semenya on the track. Wikipedia reminds us that between 1977 and 1987, the Black American won 107 consecutive finals (122 consecutive races) in 400m hurdles and set the world record in the event four times.

But his remark on the South African is one of respect. And it was, of course, referring to the case Semenya had challenged the new rule by the International Association of Athletics Federations’ (IAAF) that restricts testosterone levels among female runners.

The Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) upheld the rule.

As explained by Prof Doriane Coleman, the court, in effect, decided on the question “who is a woman” for purposes of elite sport.

Prof Coleman was one of the IAAF lawyers in the case. I was fascinated to read her Quillette analysis on the holes in Semenya’s argument to continue in 800m (Google “A Victory for Female Athletes Everywhere”).

As for who should be a woman in the elite category, this is IAAF’s preferred answer: A woman in sport is anyone whose legal identity is female—whether they personally identify as such or not—and who has testosterone levels in the female range of 0.5 to 1.5 nanomoles per litre (nmol/L). For men, typical values are 10 to 35 nmol/L.

Those with high testosterone levels, it is often a result of specific differences of sex development (DSDs) that involve genetic disorders. For example, where individuals with male chromosomes X and Y, instead of XX for biological women, may or may not have distinct male or female genitalia, but nevertheless have testes which produce bioavailable testosterone in the normal male range.

Some of these individuals may choose to either be male, or female. Semenya was accorded her female gender at birth which, in her admirably prideful assertiveness, she claims as her inalienable identity.

However, as Prof Coleman argues, if it was decided that eligibility for the women’s category should be based on identity rather than gonadal sex (which determines ovarian and testicular tissue), it would be impossible to achieve parity of opportunity in this realm of womanhood, and for sport to meet its associated goals of fair competition.

She offers several compelling g examples, of which I pick this one she described in the journal Law and Contemporary Problems. That, the differences between male-bodied and female-bodied performances hold even when we adjust for the fact that the best elite athletes are “freaks of nature” and that their success can be largely attributed to their unusual physical traits.

Sex, specifically testes and their hormonal effects matter in ways that other biological differences among athletes do not.

For example, American-Canadian swimmer and multiple Gold Medalist Missy Franklin is six feet two inches tall with a wingspan of six feet four inches. Her world record in the 200 meters backstroke, set at the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, is 2:04.06.

Compared to the American Ryan Lochte’s world record set at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, it was a full nine seconds faster at 1:53.94.

If Franklin had been in that race, at her best she would have been about a half a lap behind Lochte when he finished, even though they are the same height and have just about the same wingspan.

In a world in which competitors were categorized by height and wingspan (or just height or just wingspan) instead of sex, Franklin would not have had a world record; she would not have been on the podium; in fact, she would not have made the team.

The corollary of this is that with Semenya’s feat of 30 consecutive wins, it appears not likely that a woman without her presumed male genetic make-up will ever catch up with her.

The ramifications of this invincibility were further demonstrated during the 2016 Olympics when Semenya took gold in the 800m, followed by Kenyan Margaret Wambui and Burundian Francine Niyonsaba on the podium.

The three, including the Kenyan and the Burundian, have been described as XY individuals with differences of sex development (DSDs). It can only mean that no biological female won a medal in that event at the last Olympics.

Unless overturned, under the new IAAF rules neither of them or other female athletes surpassing the prescribed maximum of 5 nmol/L of testosterone will run 800m. They will only be eligible for higher categories starting from 5000m.

All said, however, should Semenya have won the case? The debate fiercely rages.

The views expressed in this article are of the author.

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