The unfair disadvantage Caster Semenya must endure to compete for Olympic gold

Eric Adelson
(Reuters)
(Reuters)

Medal count | Olympic schedule | Olympic news

RIO DE JANEIRO — It was a Russian runner named Mariya Savinova who said what a lot of people think about Caster Semenya: “Just look at her.”

That was after Savinova lost to the South African in the 800-meter final at the 2009 world championships. The suggestion was as stinging as it was prejudiced: Semenya supposedly had an unfair advantage from elevated levels of natural testosterone, and the so-called proof was her masculine looks.

Well, a lot has happened since then, and it was Savinova who likely had the unfair advantage. The righteous runner was caught for doping, prompting WADA to recommend a lifetime ban. Yet it was Semenya who received so much more scrutiny, despite being cleared to compete by the IAAF in 2010 after undergoing a gender test.

Savinova’s insinuations represent one of many troubling episodes in the career of Semenya, arguably the most ridiculed Olympic athlete of our times. Just recently, Paula Radcliffe, the world record holder in the women’s marathon, said a gold medal for Semenya in Rio would mean “it’s no longer sport and no longer an open race.” Semenya is poised to be one of the major stories of these Games, a serious threat to break the 33-year-old world record in the 800 meters, and many people are set to shelve scientific research in favor of bias and fear.

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According to one study, “there is no clear scientific evidence proving that a high level of T is a significant determinant of performance in female sport.” And even if an advantage was somehow proven, it shouldn’t change Semenya’s ability to compete against other women.

“I think it’s unfair,” said Yale senior research scientist Myron Genel, who has been studying this subject for decades and serves on the IOC medical commission. “There are a number of athletes who have at one time or another been in the spotlight because they have excelled and have had one or another disorder that’s related to sexual development. It’s hard to say that is the only reason why they excelled.”

Genel published a paper last week in the Journal of the American Medical Association, taking this topic on directly.

“Genetic conditions that enhance performance in sport include congenital mutations of the erythropoietin receptor gene leading to high levels of hemoglobin, which does not disqualify athletes,” Genel wrote. “There is no fundamental difference between congenital disorders leading to elevated testosterone levels, functional or not, and an erythropoietin receptor mutation leading to high hemoglobin.”

Put simply, there’s no reason for “congenital disorders leading to elevated testosterone levels” to disqualify athletes when genetic conditions leading to high levels of hemoglobin don’t.

Genel points to other athletes who have had genetic differences, including Michael Phelps, with his supreme flexibility and enormous feet. It’s never suggested that Phelps should step aside for the shorter Ryan Lochte because of something he can’t control. Nor is it suggested that, say, Kevin Durant should remove himself from the Olympics because he’s too close to the basketball rim.

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Also, consider all the advantages certain athletes are granted without any work: wealthy parents, a city with many resources, a country with support for budding athletes, a community with excellent teachers and coaches. Of course, hard work is crucial and revered, but the Olympics would look very different if hard work was the only variable in athletic success.

The problem is that most differences are celebrated. For instance, Katie Ledecky is praised for swimming “like a guy”, while Semenya’s differences are abhorrent to a vocal chorus of competitors and fans.

And, as Genel notes, there always seems to be extra criticism for track athletes, though the reasons aren’t quite clear.

“The celebrated cases have all been in track and field,” he says. “It might be the sport apparel; it’s certainly more revealing. Female athletes appear to be more masculine to some competitors.”

That’s a delicate way of saying that women are judged more harshly than men. Which isn’t new, of course. But it has reached an extreme in Semenya’s case. As Stanford ethicist Katrina Karkazis puts it, “I have never seen an athlete who has done nothing wrong so vilified in the media.”

One example: The Guardian published a story calling Semenya a “ticking time bomb” and suggested the “reaction to her success would reignite uncomfortable debates from the past.” Something so incendiary – “time bomb” and “reignite” don’t connote calm reason – does far more to stir up fear than a runner’s success.

And who is made uncomfortable exactly? Fans at home? Media? Competitors? Perhaps that discomfort is misplaced and should be reserved for dopers like Savinova.

“These are a handful of women [with naturally higher testosterone],” Genel says. “Meanwhile, you’ve got doping incidents that are estimated at 35 percent.” The issue of high T-levels “has been blown way out of proportion to its incidence.”

It is to Semenya’s credit that she runs on, set to win a gold medal that will surely cause her more stress to go with her triumph. She has already been, in her own words, “subjected to unwarranted and invasive scrutiny of the most intimate and private details of my being … [that] infringed on not only my rights as an athlete but also my fundamental and human rights including my rights to dignity and privacy.”

No male athlete ever has had to deal with this kind of gender-specific shaming. Whatever unproven advantage Semenya might have has also come with a terrible burden. We should be giving more attention to her disadvantage: chasing her dreams under a constant assault on her body and her spirit.

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