Mumbai: Ten years ago when the initial brouhaha over Caster Semenya’s sex erupted, Madeleine Pape, a fellow runner was quick to join the chorus against her. Pape, an Australian 400m and 800m runner competed against Semenya in the 2009 World Championships when questions about her gender first came up, and went along with the prevailing belief that Semenya’s naturally high testosterone levels meant she had an unfair advantage.
“It gave people a licence to be able to say what they wanted about her,” said Pape, 35, on the phone from the US, where she is now based. “People were very quick to accuse her of all kinds of things, especially having an unfair advantage and questioned her gender identity.”
Pape latched on. “For me I don’t know that I thought too much about it. I went along with it. I had been disappointed with my own performance at those championships and it kind of gave me a way to take out my frustration, by being able to put the scrutiny on someone else and accuse them of unfairly competing.”
For the past ten years, Semenya, a South African two-time Olympic champion has periodically been in the news — not just for her athletic achievements, but for sparking debates surrounding her gender identity, and for raising the question: for the purposes of competitive sport, who counts as a woman?
Earlier this month, the Court of Arbitration for Sport ruled that in order for Semenya to continue competing as a woman in the 400m and 800m events she would have to follow the International Athletics Associations Federations (IAAF) hyperandrogenism regulations. This meant she would have to take medication to reduce her naturally high testosterone levels. A contentious 2017 IAAF study showed that higher testosterone levels could improve performance by at least 5 percent, on the back of which the IAAF announced that for some events women would have to bring down their testosterone levels to below 5 nmol/L to be eligible. So far, Semenya has said she will not do this, and South Africa said this week that they plan to appeal the decision.
The CAS ruling sparked a range of reactions, including from Pape, now a PhD scholar at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, focusing on gender and sport, whose own views have undergone a dramatic transformation since she raced against Semenya in 2009.
“I stumbled across this area of scholarship where advocates of women’s sports have been very critical of the policies that governing bodies like the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and IAAF have put in place to limit who can compete as a female athlete; and the critiques of those policies in terms of the contentious science they are based on and the ethical dilemmas associated with saying some women aren’t welcome on the sporting field,” she said. “That was the first time I had encountered an alternative position on that topic. I didn't change my mind immediately, I found it confronting to discover this literature and people asking questions that I had never thought to ask. And it became obvious to me that I had made a lot of assumptions without necessarily being informed in 2009 and throughout my running career in terms of assumptions about sex difference and ability. It was over time when I took time to reflect read more talk more with people that I eventually changed my views on this issue.”
Pape retired in 2010 following a career-ending injury, which is when she decided to study further. Her research has involved speaking to athletes, coaches, managers and a range of actors at the elite level of track-and-field.
Pape’s views gain significance not just as an academic expert with fieldwork-driven insights, but as a former athlete who inhabited the same world as Semenya. In 2015 she testified before the same court when Indian runner Dutee Chand challenged the IAAF rules that debarred her on the same grounds of hyperandrogenism. Chand won, with the court at the time ruling there was insufficient evidence to back IAAF’s claim that testosterone dramatically improved performance. “They asked me if I would testify because they wanted to show that athletes could have a different perspective if they were exposed to different ideas about sex differences and these issues,” she said. “Athletes don’t all subscribe to the same views on this topic... At the time the IAAF argued that women athletes in particular want policies that exclude women with high testosterone. So I was giving my perspective that you can change your mind.”
Sports has always been divided into competition for men and women, resting on the assumption that in general men and women have different levels of ability. Ascertaining the gender of female athletes has over the years involved medical examinations and chromosome tests. Now, testosterone levels are used as the marker to separate men and women in sport, an inaccurate metric many have said, pointing out that a single hormone alone cannot decisively predict athletic ability and that athletes carry all kinds of exceptional traits.
“Basically the science is so complicated it appears to be difficult to rely on it as a way to align around the female athlete category,” said Pape.
“I think we are in a position now to be able to consider allowing women with high testosterone to compete as women because that’s how they have been raised and that’s how they identify. And we (should) work instead on raising people’s awareness about their experiences and the complexities of the science rather than trying to exclude them on shaky scientific criteria.”
The fact of Semenya’s race and sexuality — she is married to a woman — are also seen as having coloured the debate and the perceptions around her. “I think there are questions to be asked about why Semenya in particular has attracted so much scrutiny. She is an extraordinary athlete but not more extraordinary than other extraordinary athletes. So why the intense scrutiny of her in particular?” said Pape.
Pape said the court’s decision wasn’t especially surprising. “I don’t think it surprised me but it definitely disappointed me,” she said. “Semenya has been competing for 10 years internationally and in that time, not by choice but because of the journey she has been on, she has taken the sport on the journey and challenged us to think in different ways about sex and gender and about testosterone and its relation to athletic ability. As a sport, we have come quite a way but in my mind we have ways to go. It’s clear from the mixed responses we have seen and in my own research that people from the sport are fond of her and have started to question whether it would be right to exclude her.”
If gender can’t always be clearly demarcated, is there an argument for doing away with male and female categories in sport altogether? “Maybe that would be what people want in the future, but it’s certainly not what I want now. I’m a big believer in women’s sport and I don’t think accepting women with high testosterone requires us to change the categories,” said Pape. “They are women, they want to compete as women so what’s the problem?”
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Updated Date: May 16, 2019 17:53:56 IST