Caster Semenya is back, and so is athletics’ thorniest issue

CAPE TOWN, South Africa — Champion runner Caster Semenya heads into this year’s world championships with virtually no chance of winning.

On Wednesday in Eugene, Oregon, the 31-year-old three-time world 800-meter champion will race in the 5,000-meter race instead. She is not considered a serious medal contender. It’s the first time since she started dominating her favorite distance over a decade ago that someone has said that.

The South African chose to participate in a race she doesn’t really want to participate in and isn’t very good at because she refused to submit to the rules of athletics which require her to take hormone-reducing treatments if desired. get into the 800s.

These are rules that Semenya, in a statement through his lawyer, calls “an affront to the spirit of sport”.

Semenya was assigned female at birth, raised as a girl, and identifies as female. She has an intersex condition called 46, XY – differences in sexual development that cause male and female traits and a testosterone level above the typical female range. She was banned from her top event after losing her appeal of a world athletics rule that made women with her condition ineligible for certain races.

She is not transgender. Yet her case, and those involving others who have similar intersex conditions, have strong implications for how transgender athletes are treated and categorized.

Semenya’s situation, and the similar fate of Olympic 200-meter silver medalist Christine Mboma, are the most apt illustrations of the complexity of track rules regarding the participation of women who have high natural testosterone levels and what some say is an unfair athletic advantage over other women. .

For example, the rules, which will soon be revisited, prohibit Semenya and the others from running distances between 400 meters and 1 mile unless they suppress their testosterone. They are free to race in other events. So while Mboma was eligible to run in the 200, Semenya has to sit out the 800.

Mboma is injured this summer and did not make it to Eugene. Semenya was also not expected to come, but out of nowhere his name appeared on the start list for the longer race.

The related but separate issue of transgender women in sport burst into the spotlight again last month when international swimming leaders changed their own rules. They banned transgender women from competing in elite competition unless they began medical treatment to suppress testosterone production before the onset of puberty or at age 12, whichever came last.

World Athletics chairman Sebastian Coe was quick to show his support for the swim’s decision and said the track’s governing body would revise its rules by the end of the year, likely with a view to changing them. make it more stringent.

“The balance between inclusivity and fairness will always, in my view, be on the fairness side,” Coe said on the eve of these worlds, indicating where the path could go when its decision-makers meet in November. .

Such a recalibration of the rules would likely only hurt, not help, Semenya’s cause.

In a rare interview she gave on HBO’s “Real Sports” earlier this year, she said she once told track officials, “It’s okay. I’m a woman, I’m ‘don’t care. If you want to see that I’m a woman, I’ll show you my vagina. Okay?'”

Critics of World Athletics say its recent trend of essentially lumping together transgender and intersex issues is problematic. Coe often used the phrase “biology trumps identity” as a catch-all defense for the restrictions in either case, skipping over the nuance.

Track’s two sets of rules have a crossover in that both, basically, require athletes to lower their natural testosterone in order to compete.

While the DSD regulations, in place since 2019, have a real impact on athletes and careers, the transgender regulations have none at this stage as there are no transgender women in top-level athletics . Nor is there any in swimming.

It remains Roger Pielke Jr., a professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder and an expert in sports governance, concluding that the leaders of these two key Olympic sports are in “a moral panic” over transgender athletes who are simply not there. .

“We’re just shadowboxing now,” Pielke said. “As if there weren’t bigger problems the sport could face.”

The sweeping ban on swimming was a bad precedent, said Joanna Harper, a transgender woman and adviser to World Athletics on its transgender and DSD policies. It supports certain regulations but FINA, the international federation governing the sport, has left no room for compromise.

“Did they set the world in motion? You bet they did,” Harper said. “But I don’t think it was necessary and I don’t think it’s justified.”

Harper said FINA’s decision was clearly influenced by American transgender swimmer Lia Thomas, who broke barriers at the college level amid controversy and spoke about her desire to swim in the Olympics one day, putting FINA on alert. But if USA Swimming adopts the FINA ban, thereby affecting an athlete, Harper said it’s “highly likely” Thomas will go to court.

This legal risk is relevant when assessing whether a wave of sports will follow the transgender lead of swimming and whether blanket bans can last.

As much as the decision in swimming, a major catalyst for World Athletics’ decision to review its rules could have been the arrival of young Namibian sprinter Mboma. She won a silver medal in the 200m — a distance for which she remains eligible — at the Tokyo Olympics last year, her first major competition. The victory came just months after Mboma was forced to drop from 400 due to high natural testosterone.

The then-unknown teenager broke the Under-20 world record three times in one week on her way to her silver medal and overtook some of the best runners in the world with the rawest running styles. She did what Semenya couldn’t do so far by exploiting the distance loopholes in the DSD rules to win a medal. This went against what World Athletics was looking for when it adopted the rules.

Proponents of testosterone regulation have used Mboma’s sudden success as some level of evidence for the benefits of testosterone in races outside of the 400 meter to 1 mile distances that are currently regulated.

Harper thinks there needs to be a compromise on both sides on transgender and DSD rules that leads to “a reasonable outcome that may not make anyone entirely happy.”

Denise W. Whigham