Regardless of what the outcome of the latest IAAF policy on female athletes is, Caster Semenya remains a genuine heroine. Through no fault of her own she has been dragged through controversy, had intimate information publicised about her and has had to operate, in her chosen profession, under a cloud of uncertainty about her legality and future. Through it all she has remained humble, dignified, personable and dedicated to her sport and her country. She is totally blameless and at times has been used as a tool to further varying agendas. She is, quite simply, fabulous.
As usual, when an issue seems to go against our interests, there are howls of protest here in South Africa. Remember Bakkies Botha, when rugby decided to get tough on dirty play? Remember the ridiculous armbands that were, unbelievably, supported by our rugby authorities, despite the fact that we are part of the very system that regulates the sport and made the decisions? The test, in a crisis, is to put the shoe on the other foot. Forget, for a minute, that we are the party that has lost out and imagine how we would react if we are the beneficiaries from a decision. That is the acid test. If a New Zealand or Australian, so-called, enforcer had the same Bakkies decision go against him, would we have been as vociferous in our outrage? Of course not. We would have applauded.
If we had a beloved local female runner who could never, ever finish above fourth place in major competition, because of the level of performance of athletes with differences of sexual development (DSD’s), would we be incandescent with rage? No! We would say, “Shame”, but we would accept the decision because we would believe that the IAAF was acting in the best interest of the sport. So let’s try and be objective about this emotive issue? That is easy to say, I warn you. In the current climate examining both sides of this issue is like criticising Winnie Madikizela-Mandela just after her death. So to do is playing with fire.
I was always totally on the side of Caster in the “testosterone debate”. Here is what persuaded me. If Usain Bolt, or a seven foot tall male basketball player, is born with certain naturally occurring advantages, physical or chemical, there are absolutely no barriers put in their way by anyone. They are, rightly, celebrated as superstars as long as it is all natural. So, surely it follows that if female DSD athletes are born with high testosterone levels that are totally natural what is the difference? There is no doping. Surely, as with the aforementioned males, they were born lucky for their sport and good luck to them. I could never argue against that.
Then someone explained the key point. Here it is. It is as much about philosophy as science.
If you allow a totally open competition in almost all athletic events, as long as all benefits, physical and chemical, are purely natural, only men would ever win. It’s a fact that men would end up first because, in the human race, they are the strongest and fastest. No arguments. So years ago it was decided that athletics would have separate events for women. This is the key point. Athletics is thus a binary sport. There are events for men and women. The problem is that now there is a binary barrier, some would say artificial, in a world that is no longer seen as binary. In a confused alphabet soup world of classifications and self-identifications this causes all sorts of problems for athletics. It seems that today anyone can be anything they want to be and there is no problem with that. Live and let live as long as no crimes are committed. It is a wonderful progressive and humane situation.
However, and here is the crux for athletics, if you have this division between men and women in sport, and you are tasked with being fair to all, then you have to have rules and regulations governing where you set the binary boundary between men and women. Can a man wake up one day and decide that he is actually female? In today’s world he can. However, in athletics the authorities have decided the sport is binary so a decision has to be made on whether he can immediately compete as a female athlete. Where and on what basis does athletics set the boundary? That is the issue and it is a minefield in today’s world and Caster is the pressure plate of the mine…
I have seen conflicting scientific arguments about the benefits of high testosterone in female athletes. Unlike some commentators, I am not qualified to adjudicate. I did notice that, when Caster had to reduce levels to run, until the Dutee Chand arbitration kicked in, her performances dropped. Clearly testosterone levels are significant.
Is the IAAF consistent? I have no idea? Does it apply the same rigorous standards to all events and to all athletes? It must if it wants to have its fairness argument accepted or even tolerated. If it pleads fairness as a motive then it must be consistent.
Is racism involved? Take a look at a picture of the IAAF Council and it looks like a very transformed body, far from its old pale male predecessors. The IAAF President, Lord Sebastian Coe, is the grandson of an Indian called Sardari Lal Malhotra. Not a lot of people know that! It is hard to imagine such a body actively being racist but the accusation is there. How does it answer the charge?
What will happen? There will be a massive controversy and athletics must be able to justify a binary system of classification in a world that no longer really has one. Either that, or athletics will change its nature completely.
What should happen? I have no idea.