They say there are six tics that tell you when someone’s bluffing. When it comes to Caster Semenya and the IAAF, here’s a seventh. Be wary of anyone who says it’s all straightforward. The Semenya case isn’t just about sport, or sex, or gender, but ethics, politics, culture, race, and science. Expert opinion is split. Which is why the arguments have been going back and forth for the best part of a decade, and the case now seems bound to return to the court of arbitration for sport, where they will try to find the black and the white in all the shades of grey.
Semenya keeps her counsel, her only public comments her pointed tweets. There’s a wildfire burning around her. The IAAF has been accused of discrimination, of racism, of propagating heteronormative standards of femininity, of trying to dictate what is and isn’t normal. Their policy has been compared to those used in apartheid South Africa, and said, by a member of the IAAF’s own disciplinary tribunal, to be “based on the same kind of ideology that has led to some of the worst injustices and atrocities in the history of our planet.”
The language is fierce. There are athletes and coaches who disagree, but few will speak publicly.
At the heart of the IAAF’s argument is the idea that women’s athletics is a “protected” category. Men and women don’t compete together because, if they did, there would be little point in women competing at all. As they say, “the IAAF divides competition into male and female classifications because male athletes have clear performance advantages in terms of size, strength and power” and these advantages “are due mainly to the fact that, starting from puberty, [men] produce 10-30 times more testosterone than women”.
Athletes with Differences of Sexual Development, like Semenya, have significantly higher testosterone levels than the women they’re competing against. According to the IAAF, the typical female range of circulating testosterone in serum is 0.12 to 1.79 nmol/L, while the typical male range is 7.7 to 29.4nmol/L. Females with DSD often have testosterone levels in the male range. And since the IAAF’s position is that testosterone is the key distinguishing factor between male and female performance, they believe athletes with DSD have an unfair advantage.
“Unfair” is the key word. Because on the one side, there’s an argument that high testosterone is just another natural advantage, like a basketballer’s reach or a swimmer’s large feet. And on the other, that basketball doesn’t divide players by height, and swimming doesn’t seek to protect swimmers with smaller feet. But because it has male and female categories, athletics does split competition between those with high and low testosterone, to protect the female athletes.
Here, then, testosterone has been conflated with sex, as if it were the only measure of difference between men and women. It’s not, of course, it’s just the one the IAAF has settled on, because other methods it could use, such as chromosome testing, are flawed. But so is this. Because while it might seem intuitively true that testosterone provides a performance advantage, the IAAF needs to prove it, too. And it has to show that the advantage is so great that it can justify a set of regulations many think are discriminatory. Which is where its case failed the last time it came before the Cas in 2015, and, it seems, where it will likely fail again if it comes back there now.
In 2015, Cas suspended the old set of regulations while the IAAF went away to gather new evidence. Instead the IAAF produced new regulations. The new set only apply to distances between 400m and one mile, where, the IAAF says, testosterone advantage is most pronounced. This is the very same range of events Semenya runs. Which means that, even though none of the IAAF literature mentions Semenya, the rules seem, in the words of the South African minister of sport, Tokozile Xasa, like “Caster Semenya Regulations”.
Last year the IAAF released a key study, which found that female athletes with higher levels of testosterone had an advantage in five events, the 400m, 400m hurdles, 800m, hammer throw, and pole vault. And that study, which underpins these new regulations, now looks deeply flawed. Andrew Gelman, Higgins professor of statistics at Columbia University, described the analysis as “such a mess that I can’t really figure out what data they are working with, what exactly they are doing, or the connection between some of their analyses and their scientific goals.”
Gelman is a rare voice in all this, one without any emotional investment, or even an in interest the sport. His only concern is the work. And he found it lacking. The IAAF says that this was only one paper, and that its case is bolstered by a body of confidential data. But still, after 15 years of study, its very best public evidence was debunked within weeks of its release. If after a decade of trying the IAAF still can’t prove it is right that DSD athletes shouldn’t be allowed to compete unless they lower their testosterone, then all these hard questions fade in to one easy, unavoidable, answer. The IAAF has got it wrong.