“No man can tell me what to do,” South African runner Caster Semenya told Al-Jazeera after winning the 800-meter race at the Diamond League meet in Doha last Friday.
Semenya has won the 800-meter race many times in the 11 years since she began competing internationally, including twice at the Olympics, but the gold medalist hadn’t planned to compete in last week’s contest. She entered last minute on May 1, when she learned the Court of Arbitration for Sport had dismissed her appeal of what that court readily admits are discriminatory regulations of women athletes’ testosterone by the International Association of Athletics Federations. Now women running middle distance races — from the 400 meter to the mile — must have testosterone levels below 5 nmol/L.
Their decision requires Semenya to take medication to artificially reduce her testosterone if she wants to continue to compete in the race she’s spent her entire career mastering. The Doha meet was her final opportunity to run before the IAAF’s regulations go into effect May 8. The bigotry she faces off the track has overpowered her remarkable success on it, breaching the very boundary that is meant to make sports an equal-opportunity escape; those who would seek to erase her victories, are for the moment, ascendent.
Semenya’s public reaction to whether she’d consider such a medical intervention was vehement: “Hell no,” she said. Nor does she plan on switching away from her signature distance. “I’ll always run 800 meters … The 800 meters is my calling, I believe in it. I can’t be forced to switch races, I’ll switch when I want to switch races.”
Her defiance and self-assuredness are remarkable given the adversity she’s faced, but perhaps explained by how deftly she’s triumphed in spite of it. Semenya is a woman who, based on her appeal of the IAAF regulations, has some degree of “differences of sex development” (DSD) and specifically, higher levels of naturally occurring testosterone. She is black, and she is queer. Since she began competing at the elite level, competitors and the media have constantly questioned Semenya’s gender; she’s been subject to inhumane sex-verification testing as well as prolonged scrutiny by the IAAF.
“I know that the IAAF’s regulations have always targeted me specifically,” she said in a statement following the CAS ruling. “For a decade the IAAF has tried to slow me down, but this has actually made me stronger.” The numbers bear out that assertion: Semenya keeps winning, and was on track to continue her dominant reign in the 800-meter at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Now, her competitive future is in jeopardy thanks to regulations that are laughably unscientific and based in archaic assumptions about gender.
The World Medical Association and the UN are among the institutions decrying the IAAF’s regulations, seemingly to no avail. “If physicians do apply these drugs, they break ethical codes,” WMA chairman Frank Ulrich Montgomery told Australia’s ABC News. “[I]t is doing harm to a perfectly normal body with just a rather high level of testosterone by administering drugs in order to make them eligible for women’s sport under these regulations.”
The IAAF’s decision to regulate only races in which Semenya has competed is transparently discriminatory. It is sexist, in the sense that it attempts to pose arbitrary limitations on who qualifies as a woman and what it means to be one, when neither “woman” nor “female” have clear-cut definitions.
It is racist, in that Semenya is having the legitimacy of her skill scrutinized in a light that none of her fellow genetically-gifted athletes who are white must contend with (a fact that U.S. soccer star Abby Wambach and former swimmer Casey Legler have both commented on). It is homophobic, as institutions seek to invalidate Semenya’s gender identity and by extension, her sexuality.
Semenya’s fight for acceptance is about human rights — but it’s also still about sports. That might sound comparatively trivial, but it isn’t. As the UN mandate on Promoting Human Rights through sport explains, sport has enormous value “as a universal language that contributes to educating people on the values of respect, dignity, diversity, equality, tolerance and fairness and as a means to combat all forms of discrimination and to promote social inclusion for all.”
The thing that makes sports so great — so universal — is that they stretch our understanding of what we’re capable of. Sports are about proving that impossible doesn’t exist, about seeing people do things that can only be explained by the fact they’re limitless. And if they’re limitless, you must be limitless too. Even if you can’t dunk like LeBron James or hit an ace like Serena Williams, you’re capable of something that you’ve probably never even imagined.
Of course plenty of bigotry conspires to make sports an exhibit of weakness instead of strength: racism, sexism, and homophobia all run rampant, as they do in the world at large. Women in sports, often at the center of all three of those realms of oppression, still provide the most potent challenge to its mythology of a level playing field. Ironically, that level playing field is the IAAF’s purported rationale for forcing Semenya to interfere with her own body chemistry if she wants to compete.
But it is precisely the reason women face so many barriers to competition that makes their presence on the court or field or rink so important: Semenya and every girl and woman who competes in sports at any level are redefining what women are capable of, and by extension what they are — anything they want.
Competition becomes a refuge from a world full of impossible expectations and constantly shifting goal posts, a place where you can win or lose based on the rules you have chosen for yourself; where your success is shaped by how hard you work and how passionate you are, and not by the opinions of a man or many men. (“No man can tell me what to do,” to repeat Semenya’s quote.)
It’s the very thing that we relish in men’s sports — that pushing of boundaries and eschewing of limits — that we have yet to fully accept on the women’s side because it’s uniquely transgressive to celebrate women claiming power on their own terms.
Women who play sports are lauded as “empowering” (a word that, unfortunately, reinforces the passivity of those who are on the receiving end of that inspiration) because what they’re doing by competing still challenges so many oppressive norms. Norms about a vision of womanhood, femininity, and gender that are not just constricting but actively harmful; norms that the IAAF, an organization whose mission alleges it advocates for “sport for all”, has just codified into a new version of an entrenched form of institutional violence.
The CAS ruling has removed the very thing that makes sports, and particularly women’s sports, so compelling: the possibility of the unprecedented, the forging of new ground and new possibilities. It has been replaced with arbitrary, bigoted restrictions which completely contradict the notion sports offer equal opportunity and the kind of fairness that might exist in an ideal world. Worse yet, the consequences of those unsportsmanlike limitations will be felt for generations to come, counteracting all the work women athletes do to advocate for equality just by their decision to compete.
”To be honest‚ this is no longer about me,” Semenya said last December. “I’ve achieved everything I want in life.
”What about those young girls that still want to run who have the same situation as mine? That means their dreams are shattered. So someone has to do something about it. I just called my team and said‚ ‘Look‚ I think we need to fight this thing. Enough is enough.’”