Top News

HELKER-NYGREN: Restricting Caster Semenya is just the latest example of limiting women in sports

Caster Semenya - Reuters

Those who don't fit or don't want to operate within the narrowly defined roles that society has given them are met with resistance.

At the start of this month, Caster Semenya lost the legal battle against the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), which means that she must take medication to decrease her naturally high testosterone levels if she wants to continue to compete in 800- and 1,500-metre races. The IAAF concluded that it would be unfair towards all other female athletes if it did not restrict Semenya’s natural hormone composition.

Ironically, the IAAF doesn’t seem to care to limit men’s natural testosterone levels to ensure that the situation is fair for all competing men. Nor does the IAAF have any issues with other types of natural advantages for either women or men, such as extraordinarily tall people in basketball and those with unusually high levels of oxygen uptake capacity in aerobic sports. Why? Because that’s how sports work. Sports are competitive and those with noteworthy talents or genetical advantages are more likely to succeed than others. Sports are inherently unfair.

Ironically, the IAAF doesn’t seem to care to limit men’s natural testosterone levels to ensure that the situation is fair for all competing men.

So why is the IAAF concerned with restricting Semenya? Its actions suggest that natural advantages are acceptable until they challenge some fundamental aspect of society – in this case, the idea of what constitutes “women.” The IAAF is trying to hold on to the status quo; it is doing precisely what others in powerful positions have done before them throughout history – they try to limit women.

In the past, women have been pulled off courses in running races just because of their gender. Today, we consider that unacceptable and ultimately illegal, but we might not have come as far as we’d like to think.

Just a few months ago in Belgium, a female cyclist was forced to stop mid-race because she had caught up to the male cyclists who started ahead of her. Her performance was not met with admiration and encouragement – she was forced to stop, which ruined her race. Last year, when the French tennis player Alizé Cornet briefly took off her top on the tennis court, she was issued a code violation , while players like Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic recurrently do this without anyone raising eyebrows.

These are not unique events; examples of women being limited when men can roam freely are abundant. As in Caster Semenya’s case, women who don’t fit or don’t want to operate within the narrowly defined roles that society has given them, are met with resistance.

The IAAF’s proposed limit on women’s testosterone levels is also problematic from a purely scientific perspective. Recent studies have shown that the human brain, which controls the production of testosterone and other hormones, has a composition that can not usefully be gendered. There are larger brain differences within the category of women and men separately than between them. Other studies have exposed that sociocultural factors, not just biology , have effects on the level of testosterone that is produced, which further supports the inadequacy of rigid sex and gender categorizations.

The differences between men and women, both in terms of behaviour and biology, are not as clearly distinct as some would like to think. In the case of Semenya, this has created confusion as people cannot grasp the concept of her being a woman and having higher levels of testosterone than what is traditionally seen as “normal” for women. But what if our definition of a woman does not reflect the reality?

Instead of further restricting the biological and social characteristics of women, we should take this opportunity to expand them. Forcing a woman to lower her natural testosterone level artificially is a desperate effort to limit her being. The IAAF is willing to fight against what nature gave Semenya, to hold on to norms and standards that humans themselves have created. It is not just discriminatory; it lacks any resemblance of logic.

Women who have more of what is considered “male” characteristics are every day told by society to suppress these features. The IAAF has now taken the first step to institutionalize this for the distances in which Semenya competes. This is a step back for women and gender equality.

Ellen Helker-Nygren is a 26-year old student at the University of Ottawa.

Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019

Recent Stories