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The problem with sex testing in sports

Caster Semenya’s court case is the latest chapter in a long and confusing debate.

The recent controversy surrounding South African runner Caster Semenya has raised a question in the world of sports: What kinds of naturally occurring advantages should be regulated and why?

For swimmer Michael Phelps, the advantages of having a wide wingspan, long torso, and producing low amounts of lactic acid are celebrated. But for Semenya, whose body produces a naturally high level of testosterone, the response has been different. Athletic officials have been debating whether an elevated level of testosterone should disqualify her from competing as a woman and they recently decided that, yes, it should.

This spring, the Court of Arbitration for Sport upheld rules imposed by the International Association of Athletic Federations (IAAF) limiting the ability of certain athletes with high levels of testosterone to compete as women. By a margin of 2-1, an arbitration panel of three made a decision in favor of IAAF regulations, which they described as “discriminatory” but “necessary” for “protecting the integrity of female athletics.” Many have called the ruling flawed.

South African runner Caster Semenya.
South African runner Caster Semenya competing in Doha, Qatar, in 2019.
Francois Nel | Getty Images

More recently, the ruling was temporarily suspended, and the issue is far from being resolved. In fact, the court case is just the latest chapter in the Olympic champion’s decade-long battle with athletic authorities. Ever since she became the 800-meter world champion in 2009, the IAAF has gone through several iterations of their regulations for women athletes, and Caster Semenya has been on the receiving end of each successive policy.

Throughout that time, the media has been following Semenya’s story closely and shaping a narrative that is often misguided or inaccurate. “Gender,” “sex,” “intersex,” “transgender,” and other terminology have often been misapplied when discussing the controversy. To be clear, Caster Semenya is not transgender, but the lack of a standard for using terms like “sex” and “gender” has left many people confused about the actual circumstances of the case and Caster Semenya’s involvement in it.

The core issue is that “sex” is different from “gender” and there are many ways a person’s sex can develop beyond typical categories for men and women. When athletic officials try to divide athletes by sex, the line drawn changes depending on what criteria they use.

The line drawn between male and female athletes changes depending on what aspect of sex traits officials are focusing on.

But this controversy started long before 2009. In this video, we piece together the underlying issues relevant to sex testing in sports and contextualize them within the long history of athletic officials scrutinizing women athletes. By covering the debate surrounding Caster Semenya, along with historical events concerning Polish sprinter Ewa Klobukowska and Indian sprinter Dutee Chand, this video explains why athletic officials have repeatedly failed in their attempt to establish definitive sex testing regulations for female competitors.

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