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Why the ruling on Caster Semenya doesn't make any sense

Leander Schaerlaeckens
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Presently, Boban Marjanovic is the tallest player in the NBA at a towering 7-foot-3. Yet, in spite of his obvious advantage in a vertical sport, nobody has ever tried to prevent him from playing basketball.

For a few years now, Aroldis Chapman has been the hardest thrower in baseball. Or maybe it’s Jordan Hicks now. No matter. Because neither man has ever been asked to artificially suppress the velocity on their fastball generated by their bespoke blend of ligaments, tendons and mechanics.

The recently retired sumo wrestler Orora Satoshi, born Anatoliy Valeryevich Mihahanov, was his sport’s heaviest professional ever at 635 pounds. But he was never compelled to lose weight just to be allowed to compete.

Michael Phelps wasn’t penalized for a biological quirk that made the span of his arms three inches longer, at 6-foot-7, than his height. Even though ordinary people have an arm span more or less equal to their height.

No chess player has ever been suspended for being too smart.

Yet Caster Semenya, the South African middle-distance runner who has laid waste to the women’s 800-meter event over the last decade, winning the Olympics twice and the World Championships three times, will likely no longer be allowed to compete, in her current state, because of what’s been deemed an abundance of natural gifts.

On Wednesday, the Court of Arbitration in Sport (CAS) agreed with the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) that Semenya’s natural testosterone is too high for her to compete with women. As such, the IAAF is now free to require Semenya, 28, to choose between suppressing her hormone levels by medical means, competing with men, competing in intersex events, and retiring. That is, if she wants to run in any event between from the 400 meters and the mile.

South African athlete Caster Semenya competes in an event in Johannesburg on April 27, 2019. Semenya lost her Court of Arbitration for Sport appeal on Wednesday. (AP)
South African athlete Caster Semenya competes in an event in Johannesburg on April 27, 2019. Semenya lost her Court of Arbitration for Sport appeal on Wednesday. (AP)

The court was split, however, voting 2-1. And it communicated its concern with the medical implications for artificial hormone suppression and questioned how much of an edge women with elevated testosterone really have in some sporting events. The CAS urged the IAAF to hold off on implementing a rule that would cap hormone levels for female competitors until the issue is understood better, a sentiment echoed by Semenya’s lawyers.

The IAAF has indicated that the rule, restricting testosterone to five nanomoles per liter for at least six months before a competitive event, will go into effect on May 8. Typical women have testosterone levels under two nanomoles per liter. Women with what are considered “differences in sexual development” might have higher levels caused by a range of biological factors. Men tend to have levels between eight and 30.

The ruling is the latest chapter in a case that has been dragging on for a decade, ever since Semenya won Worlds as an 18-year-old in 2009 and opened a heated discussion on the definition of gender in sports.

Semanya’s lawyers said in a statement to the New York Times that her “unique genetic gift should be celebrated, not regulated.”

Semenya herself tweeted out that she had no comment. Sort of.

Last year, Semenya told the New York Times, “I just want to run naturally, the way I was born. It is not fair that I am told I must change. It is not fair that people question who I am.”

Remarkably, the CAS acknowledged that it was allowing a flawed rule to stand. “The panel found that the [differences in sexual development] regulations are discriminatory,” it wrote in a statement, “but that, on the basis of the evidence submitted by the parties, such discrimination is a necessary, reasonable and proportionate means of achieving the IAAF’s aim of preserving the integrity of female athletics.”

And herein lays the trouble. The IAAF’s stance is that with miniscule margins deciding the outcome of middle-distance running events, any unfair edge should be ruled out. But what is unfair, exactly?

By some estimates, some 60 million people globally are transgender or intersex. That means they were born in bodies that don’t reflect their gender. Or they were born with ambiguous genitalia or chromosomes that don’t conform to gender norms.

Gender, in other words, is a broad and complex spectrum. Yet sport is arranged into a binary division. So is it fair to be born into what the IAAF considers a gray area and not be allowed to compete with the gender you identify with? That you were raised as?

Because there isn’t even any compelling evidence that intersex athletes have a significant advantage over traditionally female athletes. All things being equal – training, talent level and all the rest – men typically outperform women by 10 to 12 percent in sports that rely primarily on endurance and strength. Studies show, however, that the advantage of elevated testosterone in women only increases performance by as much as 4.53 percent.

In Semenya’s event, the 800 meters, the advantage is a mere 1.78 percent.

So while Semenya has an advantage on account of a biological quirk, it hardly puts her in the male range of performance. Her edge, in fact, falls within the margin for error in the estimated male-female performance gap.

Yet the IAAF insists on superimposing binary order on an inherently fuzzy measurement. Because our scientific understanding of gender and its fluidity has outpaced our traditional separation of athletes.

If testosterone levels are to be designated as the arbiters of fairness between athletes, what of the natural range between men? Some men, as plenty of TV commercials will remind you, have lower testosterone levels than others. Isn’t that just as unfair? Follow this line of thinking to its logical conclusion and you’d eventually wind up in a sports world divided not by traditional gender but by testosterone levels, creating divisions blind to your reproductive organs.

Semenya comes by her edge naturally. Just as we all have our unique blend of gifts and flaws. Semenya’s elevated testosterone is no different from the boom in Chapman’s fastball, or Phelps’s freakishly long arms. Nor is there conclusive evidence that her edge is really all that much of an edge.

There is no justification for forcing Semenya to artificially alter what her body produces naturally. Her talents are her talents, just like anybody else’s.

Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.

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