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The Olympic Definition of Femininity


BY: Osayma Saad


Caster Semenya has been disrespected by the IAAF for years, and recently a Swiss Court decided that Semenya could not compete unless she agrees to be treated with hormone-suppressing medication. Such an ordeal doesn’t even scratch the surface regarding how she has been consistently disparaged, so let’s take a dive into Semenya’s history with the IAAF to uncover how innately wrong they are. 

In August 2009, Caster Semenya won the women’s 800-meter race at the Berlin World Championships in Athletics by a 2.45 second margin. The celebration of her victory was short lived as she was immediately wrapped up in controversy over the legitimacy of her femininity. Just for clarification: Caster identifies as a woman, was raised as a woman, and was competing as a woman. The controversy was rooted in her competitor’s criticisms, who referred to her appearance as “breathtakingly butch,” and remarking, “Just look at her… These kinds of people should not run with us… For me, she is not a woman. She is a man.”

This media attention brought to light previous tests that the IAAF had ordered from the South African authorities to perform on Semenya after she broke a national junior record at the African championships in Mauritius. She was under the impression she was undergoing standard doping tests due to her win.  

We haven’t even delved that deep into the matter, and as you can already tell, things are fishy. Semenya was subjected to tests without really knowing why, rendering the consent she gave invalid. In addition, the discriminatory and rude comments made by her competitors led the public discussion on her win all those years ago. 

The combination of Semenya’s win and her appearance raised suspicion about her sex, so more tests were ordered. She underwent many invasive and long procedures in the name of “sex determination.” It was found that Semenya possessed many androgenous traits, mainly the lack of a uterus and a very early undeveloped form of testes. Her personal information was made public and her privacy completely fell by the wayside. Her very femininity was put into question, and questions of whether she could be defined as a woman were raised. 

It is truly baffling how outrightly damaging a practice can be, all while still being tolerated, as we fail to admit our own internalized phobias towards the non-sex conforming. 

Is a woman without a uterus not a woman anymore? If a person were to get a hysterectomy would they lose part of their gender identity? Can we get over ourselves and admit why we’re trying to label this woman? It is to take away her accomplishments. The entire question of “unfair physical advantages” is juvenile. 

Due to naturally occurring testosterone levels, Semenya now has to make a choice: sacrifice her career, or her bodily autonomy. Taking testosterone reducing medication is no light feat, it has serious side effects, which could ultimately hinder her physically by ways of extreme dehydration, fatigue, nausea and much more for the rest of her life. 

But are Semenya’s androgynous traits even an advantage in the slightest? How much does testosterone affect athletic ability in the female body? 

Current science suggests that any “advantages” conferred by hyperandrogenism are so complex that testosterone levels alone aren’t enough to determine anything. Also, many medical conditions can also give females high levels of testosterone, it’s not just a male hormone. Unlike doping, in hyperandrogenism the hormones are not added intentionally to gain an advantage, nor have the individuals introduced any foreign matter in their bodies. This isn’t doping. It is often assumed that people with intersex traits are somehow exceptional because of their complex biologies, but sex is always complex. There are many biological markers of sex, but none is decisive: that is, none is actually present in all people labeled male or female. 

Even if we entertain the possibility (which we shouldn’t) that high levels of androgenism could provide some semblance of an advantage, it shouldn’t be viewed as any different from other biological advantages people are born with. Numerous biological advantages that everyone accepts are frequently found in groups of elite athletes. Basketball players who have acromegaly, a hormonal condition that results in exceptionally large hands and feet, are not banned from competition. Perfect vision exists among baseball players at a significantly higher rate than in the general population. People have also speculated that Michael Phelps, the record-breaking Olympian swimmer, has Marfan’s syndrome, a rare genetic mutation that results in exceptionally long limbs and flexible joints that help to make him an exceptional swimmer. These conditions aren’t subject to intense invitation and controversy. Because these conditions don’t deal with people’s discomfort with non-binary within sex and gender. Not to mention more obvious advantages such as wealth, social status and even height. There is so much nuance in what can be considered an advantage, and are we so scared of a black woman’s success that we need to drug her in the name of “fairness?” It quite simply doesn’t make sense.

From the very beginning, only female athletes have been subjected to sex testing due to concerns about “fraud” and “fairness” have centered on the possibility that males could unfairly outperform females. At best, only around two instances of a man trying to compete fraudulently among women has been found in the last 100 years, and instead mostly women with intersex traits have been “caught.” A long-time member of IOC Medical Commission, for example, argued that females with some intersex conditions have “masculine anatomical conditions, [giving them] an unfair and unlawful advantage over the anatomically normal woman athlete,” and thus “must be barred from competition in order to insure [sic] fair play.” Justification for “gender verification” has thus intermingled various concerns about unfair advantage created by men impersonating women, performance-enhancing drug use, and women with nonnormative sex and gender traits. The cultural equations that link external signs of “femininity” with bodily femaleness also link “normalcy” in gender and sex with heterosexuality. In other words, when people see gender nonconformity, they often infer homosexuality. Thus, gender policing in sports often takes the form of overt homophobia and transphobia. As stated by Katrina Karkazis, a researcher at the Stanford Center for Biomedical Ethics, “Cultural tensions between athleticism and femininity have long been managed by social control or strong encouragement for women athletes to attend charm schools, to wear long hair, painted nails, or other markers of emphasized femininity, and to emphasize their abilities and willingness to be mothers.” 

There is so much more that I could say yet I am simultaneously at a loss for words. Something that seems so obviously wrong actually exists in all of us, deeply rooted in our own internalized ideas of society and predisposed ideas of what humanity ought to look like. We need to re-evaluate why we find things controversial, and whether our opinions actually hold to the moral values we boast as a society. Almost every institution has a troubled history with discrimination, homophobia, racism, sexism, you name it. And acknowledging it isn’t enough. 

We need to start pressuring institutions like the IAAC to take responsibility for the past, and to revolutionize their future endeavours.  

No one deserves to be treated the way Caster has. 


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