The unequal battle: advantage, genes, gender issues and superpower | @Anna_Kessel

The tense debate around Caster Semenya and Dutee Chand substantiate the intersection between race, gender and medical imperialism

When I was eight years old I called South Africa, my dad’s homeland, for the first time. I’ll never forget running into Jo’burg, examining down over the members of this house in the town and envisioning hundreds of turquoise squiggles and flecks. “Wow,” I said, excitedly,” everyone has a swimming bath here !”

My dad gave me a stern ogle.” Not everyone ,” he said. It was 1987 and apartheid was in its final throes.

I learned a lot on that journey- my first taste of difference at its most raw. By the end of the excursion I questioned many things I reputed I knew. I had thought that it would be lovely to have a wading pool. I had thought that everybody started from a level playing field.

In sport, of course, the proposition is that they do. Sport’s governing mass exist to ensure that athletes arrive at the starting line with a fair chance. They seek to enforce fair play with a catalogue of rules. And yet, this capacity of the enforcer is increasingly problematic, particularly in relation to women and athletic. In seeking to define the boundaries of womanhood- our genetics, our apparel, our most intimate parts and knowledge- dames are being policed. Worryingly, the very regulates designed to protect us are growing our oppressors.


The story of the South African runner Caster Semenya personifies these tensions perhaps more than any other. The multiple world-wide and Olympic 800 m champion is the subject matter of reviles, medically invasive procedures and hysteria since she firstly rivalled on the international stage. She has also been claimed as their own nationals hero, an icon, South Africa’s version of Serena Williams.

Semenya’s story subdivided women working in athletic more. Sometimes uncomfortably so. Italy’s 800 m smuggler Elisa Cusma Piccione cruelly labelled her” a being” after Semenya was diagnosed with hyperandrogenism, a medical malady characterised by the high levels of testosterone. One of Great Britain’s national smugglers, Lynsey Sharp, decreed Semenya’s presence in the play “unfair”, while marathon world-record owner Paula Radcliffe said,” When we talk about it in terms of fully expecting no other make than Caster Semenya to win that 800 m, then it’s no longer sport .” Disturbingly, the female articulations of disagreement are overwhelmingly white. In differ, those women most affected by sportings’ stance on what constitutes a female jock are women of colour from the world south.

” The incongruity of contestants from United kingdom of great britain, which spent PS275m on the process of preparing the Rio competitions, growing fundamental questions about fairness in a hasten against canadian athletes from a country that wasted less than PS1. 9m has somehow lost touch ,” wrote the South African author and commentator Sisonke Msimang. Msimang’s point is important. The money and investment in international sport from the world’s richest countries is the elephant in the room. Ahead of the Rio Olympic Games, only 30 countries were expected to triumph 80% of all the medals. John Hawksworth, premier economist at PwC, coolly observed that this boasting motif reflected the shape of the global economy: a select few powerhouses reaping the greatest rewards.

I was at the Berlin World Championships in 2009, acting as an athletics reporter, when Semenya’s story firstly separated. She was just 18 when the world began reporting on her genitals. It was the most challenging, heart-wrenching, unpleasant tale I ever worked on. The world athletics media didn’t have its own language to cope, as correspondents careened awkwardly through a variety of lingo from “hermaphrodite” to “intersex” to “hyperandrogenism” and “DSD”( ailments of copulation development ).

Nine years on and Semenya has received hormone management to comply with the International Association of Athletics Federations( IAAF) necessitates, but continues to be viewed with idea. Meanwhile, the court of arbitration for play( CAS) decreed that the IAAF’s rules on hyperandrogenism should be suspended unless they can provide incontrovertible evidence to show that elevated testosterone degrees lend an important advantage to contestants like Semenya. Eventually, we are still clumsily navigating our course through this issue.


Hyperandrogenism, as so many have since reasoned, is just one genetic difference among numerous that separates one contestant from another. Eero Mantyranta, the Finnish cross-country skier who predominated his boast in the 1960 s, had a naturally high red blood cell and haemoglobin weigh; Usain Bolt is almost 2m tall and, combined with lightning fast leg turnover, obliterated the contender through three Olympic cycles/seconds. But no one complained that his proximity in the rival constructed for the purposes of an uneven athletic field. So why should gender be singled out for regulation?

I listened a athletics consultation in 2016 and heard the bioethicist Dr Silvia Camporesi discuss these issues. Since the hyperandrogenism pattern are entered into home, says Camporesi, simply women of colour from the world south have been targeted for gender testing.” How could this be ?,” I asked.

” There is an intersection of hasten and gender, and maybe medical imperialism[ in sports governing bodies’ approaching ],” Camporesi says.” This idea is that fornication is binary, and if women do not conform they should have surgery or take androgen curbing regiman- while there is no such requirement on men. In boast there appear to be this idea that to ensure fairness in rivalry you need to suppress outliers if women act too well or too close to the male assortment. There are different genetic and biological changes, plus grooming, mental capacity and other facets that make an athlete a champion. Compare Caster Semenya with Bolt and she’s not such an outlier. Use hyperandrogenism to define fairness is too narrow. Fairness is a much broader theory .”

Katrina Karkazis, a bioethicist at Stanford University, is one of the panel of experts who certified in the Dutee Chand suit- the Indian sprinter whose action at law persuasion CAS to suspend the IAAF’s testosterone rule for two years in 2015. Karkazis has been key in redefining the debate around this issue, in particular objection what she calls the” testosterone illusion “. She has frequently called out the socio-cultural situation.” The IAAF must demonstrate that female jocks with higher total T[ testosterone] have a conduct gap that approximates what male jocks often have over female players; not that female jocks with higher T have any competitive advantage over their peers. In other texts, it has to be a big conduct difference, which CAS put in the 10 -1 2% array. What the results of the study observed is nothing near this .”

In media reporting of Semenya and Chand’s cases, much has been made of their rural upbringing, as though there is a direct link between their birthplace and their genetic make-up. In information, Camporesi says, there is no scientific indicate to suggest that hyperandrogenism is any more prevalent in the global south than it is in the UK.” That would be wrong … and I would be very sceptical of any conjecture that territory it was dependent on hasten. It can be due to different justification. It can come in mild patterns such as polycystic ovary disorder[ affecting one in five women in the UK ].”

Camporesi believes that white players have not so far been picked up because they do not inevitably conform to the” visual triggers” born out of western suggestions about femininity.” My insight is that of course it is a pressure on ladies to comply with a certain heteronormative better standards of femininity. We can shape some extrapolations on the basis of the counter that was included in the IAAF hyperandrogenism regulations .”

The scoring counter that Camporesi refers to is based on a method initially generated by two physicians working in England in 1961. Currently the regulation is suspended, but before the CAS ruling it formed part of the IAAF’s approach to regulating the women’s competition.

Reading the supplement is like encountering something out of a different epoch. It is distressing to consider that this approach was applied until 2015. A division on hirsutism( undue fuzz proliferation) includes a” scoring expanse” that extends 11 different parts of the body, with accompanying hand-drawn portraits. It too endorses a vigorous path of questioning about facial fuzz removal- which methods? how often?- and included for assessment is” apocrine sweat odour “. This is women’s people being measured and categorised, in fright fashion.


When Semenya’s story first divulged I remember being surprised at the certainty with which those around me discussed her gender, based on her impression. If Semenya was white, with long mane and make-up, would there have been the same amount of outcry?

I ask Sisonke Msimang about that visual checklist from the IAAF, an institution viewing women of quality through an inflexible, white-hot, western lens.” It’s true, I’m sitting here talking to you and I’ve got extremely short “hairs-breadth”, almost non-existent, and that’s extremely common for women in South africans, and it isn’t read as masculine or butch ,” Msimang says.” And of course if you look back historically the notion of grey femininity “ve always been” erected vis-a-vis black femininity so what is beautiful in a white dame, if a black lady has peculiarities that mimic that then she is considered to be beautiful. If she doesn’t, then she is considered to be ugly .”

White femininity is the default femininity.” Black women are always going to be on the wrong side of that spectrum. And then on top of that you’ve got Caster, who of course has hyperandrogenism, and then it becomes even more dramatic. But the drama is already inbuilt into the room the category must be drawn up .”

Semenya has become South Africa’s cause celebre.” People are interested in Caster’s story for all kinds of reasons- gender, identity and all that stuff- but I feel people are interested in South africans as a last-place colonial outpost .” Msimang references the South African writer and academic Njabulo Ndebele on the protections of international whiteness.” There is a sense whereby South Africa is owned by white people everywhere. They can move there, feel cozy there, there’s a claiming of it. And I feel there’s something going on with this Caster Semenya act, which is in part about South africans, the claiming and ownership of South africans, and she objection everything about what’s supposed to be. She’s an affront on every single insight, in particular a British sensibility .”

Indian Indian athlete Dutee Chand, right, participates in the women’s 100 m hot during the Asian Athletics Championships in July 2017. Photograph: Dibyangshu Sarkar/ AFP/ Getty Images

I mention the emphasis on the” rural parish” ancestries of Semenya and Dutee Chand, as though this could only happen somewhere out of colonial self-restraint, late in “the bush”. Msimang giggles.” That’s right. That’s also part of why South Africans have owned her so strongly. There’s this bigger brawled that’s going on with Caster Semenya. I make everybody adores Caster Semenya, the most patriarchal, misogynist, homophobe adores Caster. Search for the hashtag #castersemenya and you’ll recognize the extent to which she is universally adored by Southern african .”

Msimang says there is yet to be a sincere groundswell of action towards endorse women’s equality in play. Banyana Banyana for example, South Africa’s national women’s football crew, are not paid to play and, despite achievements such as prevailing the COSAFA Cup in September, receive very few identification. Semenya’s approval, then, storms from the universality of lived experience.” It’s a recognition about the unfair methods in which Caster is viewed and talked about. She stands in for something bigger. Serena is always hyper masculinised, harking back to stereotypes and tropes we’ve had for many years. So when a pitch-black wife is doing well, excelling, she becomes a ornament for a certain kind of overpower. It’s about parties being able to demonstrate that discrimination is real by pointing to the way in which these remarkable digits are considered. It’s like,’ They’re so amazing and yet even they are subjected to which is something we suffer- so what are the opportunities hence for us ?’ So of course we’re going to root for them because they are an badge for us .”


Where things have gone ” incorrect ” is not in the genetics of these sportswomen, but in the ways they have been treated by major organisations despite its determination to sporting quality, fair play and ethics. At exactly 18, and having exceeded in “the member states national” junior championships, Chand says she was hoodwinked into a gender proof measure. Harmonizing to her testament, at the needs of the Athletics Federation of India( AFI ), the boy tripped 1,700 km to Delhi for a blood measure, simply to be told that there was no one available so instead she would experience an ultrasound. Her clitoris, vagina and labia were examined, as were her breasts and pubic hair.( The AFI feuds Chand’s version of these events .)

Afterwards, the AFI transported a concerned letter to the Sports Authority of India warning that such cases are an “embarrassment” to their international honour. Chand was promptly prohibited from emulating, unless she agreed to undergo hormone treatment. She refused.

Many horror the ethical implications of thrusting athletes to take doses or undergo interventions when there is no medical reason to do so. Katrina Karkazis, the Stanford bioethicist, warns of an increased risk of osteoporosis following surgeries, while in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology& Metabolism, Peter Sonksen, a retired professor of endocrinology , like to remind you that the “feminising” procedures of clitoral mutilation and part gonad removal are “unethical”. Although the IAAF plows the costs of the medical procedures they do not pay for the aftercare of the contestant, he says, potentially negatively affecting players from the world-wide south who may not then have access to continued hormone therapy or follow-up health checks. The United Society special rapporteur on health, Dainius Puras, has condemned clitoridectomies- a so-called ” feminising” medication performed on four girl contestants at the moment of its London Olympic Games- as a formation of female genital mutilation.


How we understand these storeys is predominantly due to the storytellers. Shireen Ahmed, a Canadian athletics columnist, emphasises how dependent we are in the west on a select few to tell globally important fibs. As a Muslim woman, enthusiastic about boast and accepting for the purposes of the hijab forbid, Ahmed left her chore in social services to become a sportswriter and shake up the hegemony.” One of the reasons why I got into this is because I truly detested the acces that floors of Muslim women in sport were written about ,” she excuses.” They’re all written by a grey guy. There’s very little understood it the geopolitical context, that Muslim women are not a monolith .”

In the west we assume to have all the answers, but Ahmed points out that in Canada the women’s professional ice hockey league are not paid, despite it being a national boast. They receive a nutrient allowance and their movement overheads, and that’s it.” I was scandalized when I located this out. We like to tout ourselves as developed societies, the UK, Canada, Australia. But the struggles of women in athletic are universally exactly the same whether that’s the Matildas “re fighting” equal spend, the Danish women’s team, England’s Lionesses .”

She cites the sequence about the 2015 FIFA women’s world cup that was played on turf in Canada, despite football’s female whizs pursuing legal action against FIFA.” Well, Canada is now bidding for the men’s World Cup in 2028, and they’re not dictation for turf. They’re bidding for grass. It’s really funny because with the women it was like,’ Well we have winter until April so there’s no way we can retain grass. Well yeah, unless it’s for “the mens” .'” Ahmed laughs as she describes desperately trying to find international women’s sport on Tv in Canada. When the women’s European Championships were on in 2017, a TV network was broadcasting” corn opening” championships- literally pitching beanbags into pits in a wooden timber- instead of the women’s football.” Can you thoughts? For the men’s Euros those matches were on every major system. You can’t build an gathering if you don’t evidence it. It’s ridiculous .”

Over the years, Ahmed has tracked the various types increases around boast and the hijab- from the lifting of the prohibition by FIFA and FIVB Beach Volleyball, to the ongoing engagements in women’s boxing and court volleyball.

When she wrote about the 2016 Olympic volleyball match between Egypt and Germany- crassly dubbed” burka versus bikini”- Ahmed uncovered the distressing prescribe on the all-women’s rivalry paraphernalium.” I didn’t realise that the volleyball organization mandated women’s bikinis to the centimetre and diameter of their banding on their bikini feet. I was entirely mortified. I approached the article belief this was about verifying what Muslim women wore, but it wasn’t, it was about ensure what all women wore. There’s a woman from the Netherlands who wanted to wear a short-sleeved rash patrol. She had to get special permission in order to just wear a T-shirt, instead of a bikini. You don’t see the same level of policing of men’s outfits .”


The world of sport is being forced to confront its management of the status of women. Women’s football globally pushes on with Nigeria’s sit-in protest over payable compensations, and Denmark and Argentina on ten-strike over equal remuneration and conditions. It is not just a matter for jocks. Second Source, working group for female columnists working in the UK, has recently been established, with cross-party political supporting, to tackle sexual abuse and abuse in the media. It is much needed. As I write, a female columnist moves me screenshots of themes she’s received for daring to hold a sporting sentiment on social media; she is invited to kill herself and told going to go to the kitchen. It is a common instance for many in her role.

” It’s really not involved to make sure women are included, it’s just not ,” Ahmed says. But unhappily, the concepts of a level playing field in boast have continued fail women; in 2018, we need to do better .”

This is an revised removed from the Griffith Review 59: Commonwealth Now

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