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Gender hurdle

Ban on Caster Semenya reveals limits of trying to ensure equal opportunity while delineating between male, female athletes

By: Editorial |
Updated: May 4, 2019 1:45:21 am
Caster Semenya, Caster Semenya ban, Caster Semenya runner, Caster Semenya testosterone level ban, testosterone level runners, female runners testosterone, IAAF, DSD, Express editorial, Indian Express Female bodies can produce testosterone as high as 7 to 29 nmol/L closer to the male range, far above the 1.79 nmol/L seen in 98.3 per cent of females.

The Court of Arbitration for Sport on Wednesday rejected an appeal from 800m champion runner Caster Semenya to declare void a regulation that barred females with Differential Sex Disorders (DSD) from running in races between 400m and a mile without bringing down their testosterone levels to under 5 nmol/L. The decision sent shock-waves through track and field because it was discriminatory and exclusionary against women with naturally occurring high-testosterone. It has been criticised worldwide with athletics governing body, IAAF, antagonising the sport’s biggest star female athlete. One must wonder why they would stand up defiantly for nameless athletes who aren’t on podiums, and invite the wrath of a world demanding diversity and inclusion, and with no patience to suffer gender insensitive fools, interphobia or racism. It’s because they are tasked with an impossible balancing act — to preserve the outdated delineation between male and female classifications, because sport is determined to be slotted into either-or for sake of competition.

There is consensus that sex has no binaries — and there are several DSD variations on the spectrum. Society has far outpaced and outlived this binary, but sport is visibly struggling to deal with this natural fluidity, because central to its pursuit are the actual human body-form with all its complexities, gifts and limitations. Female bodies can produce testosterone as high as 7 to 29 nmol/L closer to the male range, far above the 1.79 nmol/L seen in 98.3 per cent of females. So, the natural advantage for a high-T athlete and equally natural disadvantage for a low-T competitor co-exist with the uneasy 5 nmol/L delineation. IAAF with its best intentions to accommodate every niche interest and encourage their right to participate is perennially cast as villain, not doing right by every section post each ruling. Empathy is desired from all sides, though battlelines span minefields in biology, sociology, sporting physiology and gender rights, taking the debate further away from consensus. Women’s sport faces its toughest test at the moment.

While even the CAS ruling strikes down unequivocally on getting DSD athletes to ingest chemicals to lower their testosterone, the IAAF cannot lie about testosterone being an absolute non-factor in sport, as some would have the courts believe. Exclusion in sport is always discriminatory and there’s no bigger tragedy than Semenya not running her event. But it is also the IAAF’s responsibility to ensure that a 800-race is equal-opportunity for all the eight lanes — and not a lost cause for women not blessed with higher T-levels.

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