When South African runner Caster Semenya won the 800-meter in last August’s world championships, she wasn’t expecting the controversy that followed. Her deep voice and impressive speed led to speculation about her gender.
Due to these questions, Semenya was sidelined for almost a year, while officials investigated her gender. Today, the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) finally cleared her for competition as a woman.
While the IAAF is keeping her medical information confidential, published reports suggest she is intersexed. Her male organs give her increased testosterone levels, which could give her an athletic advantage.
Semenya’s situation is a painful reminder of the difficulties that transgender and gender-variant athletes face. Athletics, much like many other aspects of society, are split up into a strict gender binary. Do people who fall outside the gender binary have any place in competitive athletics? They’re forced into categories, their status as man or woman tested and verified in order to compete.
Moreover, why is the IAAF considered an expert on an individual’s gender and given the responsibility of gender policing competitive athletes? Sex and gender both exist along a continuum and classifying everyone as a woman or man doesn’t accurately represent human diversity. Is there a space for intersex athletes when Semenya was forced to undergo a year of scrutiny and medical gender verification just to compete as a woman?
And what about transgender athletes? The IAAF clearly determines if an athlete should compete as a man or woman based on their sex, forcing transgender athletes to compete as their sex rather than their gender.
While the IAAF is trying to prevent athletes from getting an unfair edge due to particular biological advantages, gender policing is not the way to go. All competitive athletes benefit from physical advantages that differ from most of society. While reports suggest that Semenya has three times more testosterone than an average female, the average female athlete is not your average female. Competitive athletes are able to excel and succeed past the limits of “normal” people because they are physically different.
But regardless of how different an athlete appears, no athlete should have to endure public scrutiny about their gender.
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