Science and Society

Why the Caster Semenya sillyness makes me so angry

I am, I would be the first to admit, generally pretty flippant and light-hearted in my blogging.

Caster Semenya. I dunno, but Jenny Meadows looks at least as...hardcore...ya?

Not for me the heavy-handed nor overly serious style adopted by many others.  No, I prefer that my readers have a bit of a giggle, maybe pick up some new knowledge, and go skipping off into the rest of their day.

Not today, gentle readers, not today.

Upon perusing our fine print news media this morning (in this case, the NZ Herald), I was at first nonplussed, and then furious, to see yet another article about Caster Semenya.  The female athlete who won the 800m and 1500m races in the World Championships last year and then proceeded to be paraded (unkindly, often) in front of the world, by the media.

What occasioned this treatment?  Well, she won.  By quite a margin.  Performances like hers, in any sport, do tend to raise the eyebrows of sporting officials, as they suspect foul play of some sort.  Her 800m time beat her personal best (9 months earlier) by 7 seconds, and became a national, championship and world record time.  Now, I believe that a drug test in this case is perfectly fair.  They also, however, asked her to undergo a gender test.  This was supposed to be kept confidential (gender is, after all, somewhat more personal than drug use*), but was leaked to the press.

Who proceeded to have an absolute field day with the issue but, as is so often the case, I haven’t actually heard much sense from people around me who I’ve heard discussing it (although there were a couple of decent articles at the time).  The issue died down for a while, but has raised its ugly head again, and I am once again spittingly angry at the pronouncements by so many, who know so little, on the subject.

Before I get into said debate, some facts to bear in mind.

Gender is not, as many might believe, a binary characteristic.  In fact, like so much of life, genetics and the human experience, it encases a spectrum of different possibilities.  Some examples below:

- Superfemales/supermales - These are people who have an extra sex (X/Y) chromosome.  In females, for example, it means the that the person has 3 X chromosomes**, and some women can be taller (although other potential characteristics include reduced muscle tone and clumsiness).

- Congenital adrenal hyperplasia - Occurring in 1 in 1,000 people, this refers to a series of diseases in which the genes for enzymes which are involved in making cortisol have mutated.  The outcome?  Most of the time, it changes how much sex steroids people make (either too much or too little), which can affect their development, fertility, etc

- Conditions such as AID - Androgen insensitivity syndrome is caused by mutations in the androgen (male sex hormone) receptors.  People with the condition, which also, as with most genetic disorders, varies in strength and effect, often experience some level of infertility/undervirilisation.  In people who have complete AIS, a genetically male person (XY) will present externally as a female, as androgens are responsible during development for the development of a neutral foetus into a male foetus (one might describe being female as largely default).

And the tests for gender are far from, well, seriously accurate in some cases. To explain - gender is determined by whole chromosomes full of genes.  So to figure out whether someone is genetically male of female, you’re looking for very specific bits.  Which, even if a full sequence is done, is apparently something like a fishing expedition.  Other ways to test include looking at genes elsewhere, which regulate hormone production and sit elsewhere in the genome.  But again - not exactly back and white.  Or you could look at muscle, but the same applies***!

I’m certainly not going to try and guess what, if anything, might be affecting Caster Semenya - I’m simply trying to make clear that human gender is a far, far more complicated thing than simply being a boy or a girl.

And here’s where we can start the debate.  There are certainly a number of facets, so I’m going to try not to waffle, but rather open them up for discussion.


Is this something something that should be being splayed across the media internationally?  Yes, something interesting is occurring.  And it’s not like doping, because that’s breaking the rules. Caster has broken none so far, and should be treated with a little bit of common decency (clearly, dignity is too much to ask). A lot of the complaining really does seem to have a very base, greenish tint to it…

And I thought we’d got over wanting to peer at other people in some sort of weird carnival-type fashion (especially if they didn’t consent).

Where do we draw the line?

This is the crux of it, I think.  It could be argued that most professional athletes are far from representative of the norm - like many models, they represent the far ends of the bell curve which makes up humanity.  Female athletes, for example, are likely to have started out with more androgens (male sex hormones) that their ‘normal’ counterparts, which would provide an advantage.  And we don’t moan about that.

Or, perhaps, one female athlete is taller than another - perhaps even taller than some male athletes.  Do we then tell her to compete with men? Obviously, asking shorter men to compete against women would probably still be unfair…

To give another example: Usain Bolt.  The man who made the world’s draw drop with his incredible speed, charm, and, well, that wonderful moment when he slowed down at the end of the race to show off a little.  He’s a complete freak .  Speed is made up of a mixture of how long your stride is, and how fast you can move your legs.  Bolt’s stride is unusually long (7ft or something equally incredible), and he is able to move those legs of his very fast, both of which give him that gobsmacking ability to outrun lightning.  Now, should we be saying that he can’t compete at all, since he’s basically untouchable (and going to get faster)?  I have heard not even the slightest whisper of such a suggestion.

Or, should we split athletes in classes, either instead of/in addition to splitting them by gender?

I dunno, perhaps we should do away with professional athletes completely, and just pull random people off the streets to compete.  Hmmph.

Other angles

Here’s where I bring in transhumanism, and prosthetics, and so forth.

A word on prosthetics.  Take, if you will, the case of Aimee Mullins****.  She’s a runner, and a gifted one at that.  She’s also a model, an inspirational speaker, and, oh yes, she wears prosthetic legs. And there’s Oscar Pistorius, who runs so fast on his prosthetic legs that he’s able to compete (and compete well) against able-bodied runners.

Which brings up another question: are prosthetics an unfair advantage? Should we ban their use, or have runners using them run in yet another category? Might athletes one day choose to lose limbs in favour of bionic alternatives?

That last point dips deeply into transhumanism, a subject with which I’m fascinated.  (For myself, I’d be happy to swap squishies for more advanced versions with cool features, but yes).

In conclusion

Certainly I don’t have answers, but I think we need to be very careful in the proscriptions we make - there’s much of the slippery slope about this whole issue.

And there’s no one test which will answer this question - it’s something for the judges to decide, as they figure out what constitutes female vs male. This is a matter for experts, not the the ill-informed opinions media/public debate.

Certainly, it would be nice if everyone could have a little more dignity as the decisions are made - at least as much dignity as Semenya has displayed during this time.

UPDATE: The IAAF has come to a decision on this.  Which makes the continuing media farce even more appalling.


Postscript: Let me be clear - I understand why sporting events are split into male/female, and I have no problem with it.  Oh yeah, and also: the athlete who was moaning that running against Semenya was like running against a man, finished 8th. It could be argued that it’s not Semenya getting in her way…and there’s nothing uglier than bad sportsmanship.

Further postscript: Jenny Meadows actually came out in support of Semenya last year - details of decent sportsmanship in this article.


* Particularly, and I should stress this, in countries which are not western and liberal!  Good grief, South Africa (from whence I hail) has some seriously old-school attitudes towards such things, and the poor girl’s only 19 now!

** Other names for the condition include triplo-X, trisomy X, XXX syndrome, and 47,XXX aneuploidy

*** Basically, while men and women differ in muscle strength and muscle variation, there are always going to be outliers on both sides.

**** Watch TED talks by her, here.

  • Evan

    Great post Aimee!

    I too think the media interest is wrong and I can’t imagine how terrible it must be to have the whole world talking about your gender.

    I do however understand the interest. To me knowing that biologically gender is a spectrum the interest is “What are the IAAF going to do?”. It is a real conundrum. I’m glad the IAAF have not taken away her result, but I wonder what would happen in the future with other athletes that were more ‘masculine’? Do we want a world we have to tell our daughters they can’t be world champions because they are not hermaphrodites? I surely don’t have the answer to this but I suspect most people would say no.

    It must surely not be too far away until there are two ‘Olympic’ games. The traditional one, and then the trans-humanist one where drugs etc are allowed and people can reach their full potential. It would be a great marketing opportunity for Pharma!

    I can imagine the announcer: “In conjunction with Pfizer, World No #1 Busain Colt”

    • Aimee Whitcroft

      Hi Evan

      Thanks for that :) I doubt it’s ever going to get to the point that girls can’t compete if they’re not hermaphrodites :) We definitely don’t want a world where girls who are a little more masculine than many others are told they can’t compete either, though.

      And the IAAF has ruled that she can continue to compete, so the question in this case has been largely decided - my argument was more about how the issue has been treated, than the decision itself.

      As for transhumanism - it would be fascinating! And drugs wouldn’t be the only component, I’m sure.

  • guyw

    I agree that Caster was appallingly badly treated over this - such issues should remain private, at least until evidence of foul play in some way is discovered. Whatever happened to the principles of fair play and “innocent until proven guilty?”

    Having said that, there’s clearly a potential issue of where people should compete - as you said yourself, men competing against women would be unfair, so where does one draw the line on this rather blurred border?

    In some ways it harks back to the old cold war days (when drug testing was introduced as it was clear that many of the East Bloc athletes were not exactly feminine, and clear evidence of steroid abuse, etc., came out). Could countries that do not adhere to the principles of fair play get involved in GM work to breed super-athletes? Not a nice concept at all, but not completely unimaginable…

  • Aimee Whitcroft

    Oh, breeding super athletes is already happening, interestingly enough :) I saw some research a while ago that pointed out that athletes tend to end up with, well, other athletes, so yes…