Sporty Spice

how Semenya is challenging our notion of female athletes

by by George Warner

Caster Semenya runs fast—really fast. The 18-year-old South African runner dominated the Women’s World Championship 800m race this August, when she beat her nearest competitor by nearly two-and-a-half seconds, clocking in at 1:55:45. But her record-breaking performance was marred by controversy even before the gun went off. A day before the race, the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) made public that it was investigating whether Semenya has too many male biological characteristics to compete as a woman.

Sexual categories have historically been vague and varied, and biologically are not as simple as "male" or "female." The IAAF and the International Olympic Committee’s investigations into “suspect” woman athletes underscore an intense discomfort about sexual ambiguity and a social desire to maintain a clear distinction between male and female in a society that accepts male athletic superiority as given.

Boys will be girls
Information about Semenya’s sex seems less than definitive. If we trust IOC steroid inspectors, who have seen her urinate, and her coach, who said he would give the media the phone numbers of Berlin roommates who have seen her in the shower, Semenya has external female characteristics. Less authoritatively, Australian press has leaked that she has internal testes rather than ovaries. But sexual ambiguities in sports are not as rare as they might seem. If Semenya turns out to have an ambiguous sex status she will share company with an estimated one in 1000 people, at least if US statistics on sex are globally applicable.

Sex may seem a simple matter of XX or XY, but sexual differentiation is a complex biological process mediated by a variety of genetic and hormonal systems. Those with XY can develop into women if the one gene on the Y chromosome, called the SRY (Sex-determining Region on Y) gene, is non-functioning, although these women never menstruate and are infertile. Similarly, those with XX can develop as males if the same gene is swapped from a Y to an X chromosome, though these males are usually of average female height and infertile as well. Beyond the SRY gene, a plethora of conditions exist that confound the perceived simplicity of biological sex-determination. XY females can have androgen insensitivity, in which they have testes and produce male hormones but lack receptors to react to these hormones, resulting in female characteristics and—notable for athletes—no reaction to anabolic steroids. The condition exists in gradations, so defining the sex of those people who are androgen-insensitive is particularly difficult. On the opposite end of androgen abnormalities, XX individuals can have an excess of androgen through the combination of androgen-secreting tumors and the metabolic absence of one enzyme that turns androgen into other hormones. In extreme cases this can lead to male physical expressions, but can also occur to a milder degree to induce more muscular and usually infertile females. 

The sporting life
As could be expected given the fuzzy boundaries defining sex, the international standards for qualifying as a female athlete have fluctuated tremendously over the last century. Beginning in the 1960s, after it was alleged by the United States and Western European countries that Soviet bloc countries were entering men into women’s competitions, competitors were required to pass physical inspection by a panel of doctors. At the 1966 European Athletics Championships, the first inspector-controlled event, the 243 athletes inspected all passed the examination, but five world record-holding athletes exempted themselves from the event.

Responding to significant resentment over the intrusive exams, the IOC soon switched to the sex chromatin test to determine competitors’ sex. This test marks the presence of a Barr body, a small chromosomal ball made out an X chromosome when two or more are present. Individuals who expressed physical female characteristics were disqualified if they did not have two X chromosomes. Ewa Klobukowska, a Polish sprinter, was banned from competition in 1967 even though she had passed a physical exam the year before and later gave birth to a son. 

Although sex chromatin tests limited the embarrassment associated with physical exams, they had become unpopular by the 1990s, due to the acknowledgement that chromosome testing failed to accurately gauge a
competitor’s sex. Furthermore, the IOC and IAAF acknowledged that the revealing attire of modern athletes and inspector-monitored urine samples no longer make it feasible for a man to masquerade as a female. In the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, chromatin tests showed that eight athletes did not have two X chromosomes, but were allowed to compete when IOC officials determined that their Y-chromosomes did not give them an advantage over other competitors. After the 1996 Atlanta Games, the IOC followed the IAAF’s lead and canceled compulsory testing of female athletes. Since then, athletes competing as females are presumed female, with investigations into sex only occurring when an athlete has lodged a complaint against another "suspect" competitor. 

Sugar & spice
Semenya was investigated by the IAAF because of “her [muscular] physique and powerful running style,” as well as for her “deep voice,” as quoted in the Australian paper The Age. Of course, this implies that women do not run powerfully and should not have muscular physiques or deep voices. These suggestions are consistent with traditional expectations about male and female athletes. Male athletes are marketed as titans, larger-than-life
figures, powerful even when failing, described by commentators as trying to do too much or not knowing their own strength. In contrast, female athletes from Martina Navratilova to Serena Williams have been chastised for looking too masculine, having too-muscular features, or, notoriously, grunting in a "manly" fashion. The decision to challenge Semenya’s femininity on the grounds of her powerful running style demonstrates a fundamental discomfort with the imagination of the female body as an overtly powerful entity. Already billed as too dominant, Semenya ironically bolstered the case against herself by accomplishing the presumed objective of athletic competition: winning. IAAF spokesman Nick Davies tried to explain the rationale leading to the investigation by noting that Semenya’s performance at the African Junior Championships was “a bombshell result.” 

With experts questioning her running style and competitors validating the investigations with comments like “just look at her” and “for me she is not a woman, she’s a man,” Semenya’s public reaction to the allegations further illustrates how important perceptions of femininity have become. Pictured on the cover of YOU Magazine, South Africa’s largest English language magazine, in a black dress and necklace, Semenya notes, “I’d like to dress up more often and wear dresses but I never get the chance,” while the magazine cover proclaims “We turn SA’s power girl into a glamour girl—and she loves it!” As Ian Evans noted in The Daily Mail, while dressing up does not a woman make, “it certainly helps.” While Evans’s statement may seem insensitive, it underscores how the Semenya case is not based on biology, but rather her non-performance of "feminine" qualities. A noticed and notable contrast to Semenya’s "masculinity" that most fans of women’s tennis will recognize is the ubiquity of applied eyeliner and make-up on the court. While makeup clearly does not provide a competitive advantage, the real or imagined alternative of being described as looking “like a man,” as Semenya’s coach described her, helps explain the choice. 

The investigation into Semenya’s sex demonstrates the reliance on socially-established tropes of gender and presumed physical markers of sex like breast tissue, muscle mass and jaw structure. In addition, investigators have focused on Semenya’s high levels of androgen hormones. Such an approach could lead to a biologically inaccurate and socially prejudiced system in which physically female competitors with abnormally high levels of androgens would be barred.

Puppydog tails
The corresponding development in men’s sports has been the IAAF’s acceptance of steroid use by male athletes who have Klinefelter syndrome, or XXY male, which results in the production of less androgen than other males. Unlike differentiation in height, bone structure, and numerous other factors that contribute to a person’s athletic ability but are not allowed to be modified through steroid use, the IAAF has decided that men without "normal" amounts of androgens should be allowed to artificially increase their amounts of hormones. This policy contradicts the understanding that worldclass athletes compete with other humans who are not genetically identical, or for that matter genetically normal. The IAAF would never ban Michael Phelps for having an incredibly large torso in proportion to his body size, which gives him a clear competitive advantage over other athletes.

In contrast, if Semenya is banned from competition, women with excess androgen risk being told that they have an unfair advantage. A notable exception to this rule is if excess androgen is being produced by a tumor, rather than as a result of a metabolic or genetic abnormality. This distinction reiterates the fact that it is not just the advantage, but that the advantage stems from a blurring of the distinction between females and males that makes officials—and the public—uncomfortable.

The Semenya case demonstrates that what is at stake is not just hormonal competitive advantage in running, but the maintenance of a clear distinction between men and women. Whether or not the IAAF concludes that Semenya has too many male features to compete as a woman, the development of sex verification tests based on suspicion has the potential to institutionalize stereotypical notions of what is male and female. Meanwhile, none of this changes the fact that Semenya can still run really fast.

GEORGE WARNER B’10.5 identifies with Juwanna Mann.