Semenya and Chand: Women who ran, while the world debated around their genitalia

Written by Deepa Venkatesan

The 2016 Olympics at Rio de Janerio saw some of the greatest achievements and new standards of quality being set around various sports. The traditional ideals about identity, ability and competitive fairness in sports have been challenged like never before. But the constant debate that did the rounds on social media was with respect to female athletes and their unladylike syndromes. Forget toiling ten thousand hours of practice, rising out of third world economies to travel so far to win a gold- what mattered more was whether your face or physique was camera sound. And under this category, the story of Caster Semenya takes the icing!

Known as the ‘ticking bomb’ from Kenya she went straight gold at the 800 metres and the win was not surprising. In the 2012 Olympics Semenya bagged a silver for the same distance. Determined and focused, the sprinter’s performance created history after one minute, 55 seconds and 28 milliseconds this year. But what happened next was a reminder to the world about why we need to look at Caster differently. Or, do we?

Photograph: Antonio Lacerda/EPA

In an emotionally charged article in The Guardian, Katrina Karkazis, a Stanford bioethicist, describes the above picture- “The image that will stay with me long after the last competitor leaves Rio this week is a decidedly un-Olympic one. Caster Semenya, the women’s 800m gold medallist, extends her arms to fellow competitors Melissa Bishop of Canada and Lynsey Sharp of Great Britain. Sharp, who came in sixth, holds a tearful Bishop, who took fourth, in a tight embrace. Rather than respond to Semenya they remain in their embrace ignoring her. The photo was a sad endnote to one of the most vitriolic media and social media uproars I can recall, one in which the athletes were the casualties. And the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) did nothing to quell it.”

Why would the IAAF indulge in a dialogue when the controversy around Semenya’s athleticism continues to be investigated and is a matter that even science could not yet solve?

What happens to a woman with elevated testosterone

She gets vilified and is a subject of persistent media speculation. She gets humiliated and has to undergo several sex determination tests to let the world know whether she is a man or a woman. Like a visit to laboratory will solve that! And finally, if she is an athlete, her wins are attributed to not the hours of practice but to her genetic mutation that gives her the larger advantage- the ability to be a man among women. Or even more than a man, in some cases. Scientifically, there is no published proof that naturally produced testosterone gives one an athletic advantage.

For decades, the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), the world’s governing body for track and field, has sought to preserve the male-female division in its sport through variations of sex testing—gynecological exams, chromosome tests, or hormone tests to make sure female competitors aren’t actually men trying to pass as women, or intersex women with masculine traits that might give them an unfair boost.

Semenya whose body generated  functional levels of the hormone within “the male range,” or higher than 10 nanomoles per liter of blood, was barred in 2009 from international competitions like the Olympics.This syndrome is also known as Hyperandrogenism and one for which even the Indian sprinter Dutee Chand was banned from participating by the IAAF. On the counterview IAAF experts link testosterone with lean body mass and a reason why male athletes tend to perform better (agility wise) than female ones. Testosterone leads to increased strength, speed, and power, IAAF experts argued, which is why many athletes try to illegally take synthetic versions of the hormone to boost their performance and here’s why “intersex athletes” like Semenya and Chand may prove to be a threat with their unfair performances. According to Karkazis this is nothing but “a policy whose explicit aim is to make women slower”.

To this, Dutee Chand had slammed a simple response : “If you make an elephant run, can that elephant run fast, even though he has a lot of strength?” she said. “Not necessarily. It’s all about training.”

Dutee Chand1.jpg

The IAAF’s testosterone rule was suspended last year by the Court of Arbitration for Sport, which said there was not enough scientific evidence to suggest that women with high levels of the hormone have a significant competitive advantage. And this paved way for Semenya to get back on track yet again. The court gave the IAAF a deadline of July 2017 to come up with more evidence. And this can be the one unpredictable reason why her Gold win in 2016 Olympics can be legally and biologically questionable if IAAF does deliver more evidence in the near future.

Although Chand was pulled out last minute from participating in the 100 metre in this Olympics, she is putting up a tough battle against the IAAF and the Atheletics Federation of India by approaching the Court of Arbitration for Sport in Switzerland with an appeal against her ban. For many sportswomen like Chand, sports means equality for the girl child in a country like India and a better future than marriage. For many sportswomen, this is the only livelihood. When the Atheletics Federation of India concluded that the only option for her to be back on track was by undergoing a surgery to lower the hormone secretion, she went for a straight no. Why surgery, when she’s not sick.

The other stereotypes to break

Semenya’s referred to as transgender, a tomboy, a man and sometimes a “ghost”.  But the biggest of all that she fought through was getting married with her long time lesbian partner Violet Raseboya in an all traditional South African ritual.

The court, the IAAF, the scientists and all the existing sports policies need to decide whether competitions will ever have space for talents like Semenya and Chand. But even if the draw a conclusion, would it be fair?

“God made me the way I am, and I accept myself,” Semenya told You, a South African magazine, in 2009. “I am who I am, and I’m proud of myself.”

Not letting someone run and live their life for the way they are born is unfair. Thank you Semenya and Chand for reminding us what is it like to fight, like a woman.

This is a Diaspora original. 



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