A swamp of misogyny

Caster Semenya. PHOTO: Themba Makofane
Caster Semenya. PHOTO: Themba Makofane

International athletics federation the IAAF has promulgated a fascinating set of regulations, quaintly titled IAAF Eligibility Regulations for the Female Classification (Athletes with Differences of Sex Development), which compels pharmaceutical abatement of the endocrine hormone testosterone in designated athletes, exclusively female, down to a level within a formally “normalised” range.

This is ostensibly to “level the playing field” for women athletes competing against peers naturally endowed with higher levels of circulating testosterone as a result of differences in sex development, or DSD. The IAAF’s stated desire to ensure “fair and meaningful participation by all athletes, including those with DSD”, is commendable.

Until one asks: Fair for whom exactly?

A phalanx of top scientists has conducted research in the past 15 years which, in the view of the IAAF, categorically proves that a higher level of testosterone is associated with greater kinetic output. Hardly ground-breaking, since the effects of testosterone were well documented decades ago.

What is new is research on which the regulations rely. It concluded that: “Female athletes with high fT [free Testosterone] levels have a significant competitive advantage over those with low fT in 400m, 400m hurdles, 800m, hammer throw and pole vault.” No such difference in performance was recorded among male athletes or, presumably, among women athletes competing in other track and field events.

So far, so scientific

Armed with this research, the IAAF makes an inferential leap by proposing that hormonal equalisation among women athletes can be achieved through the use of a chemical dial – as though testosterone is a “lone wolf” chemical, unconnected to the constellations of hormones, enzymes, proteins, neurotransmitters and myriad other bio-chemicals that make up the galaxy of human physiology – to be turned up or down at whim.

Affected athletes will have to submit to the continuous use of chemical instruments, even when not competing, to reduce the level of the offending hormone, with little regard for the physiological and psycho-social effects on the athlete’s lived experience.

This is physiological re-engineering not unlike gender reassignment or, more aptly, chemical castration.

US scholar Francis Fukuyama, in his book Our Post-Human Future, poses a germane question. If genetic modification allows humans to produce offspring that are stronger or brighter than their naturally conceived cousins, what implications does this have for public policy and human rights?

This is an ethical sinkhole. As with genetic modification, chemical modification has profound implications for human rights and equality.

But the IAAF faces more existential dilemmas arising from this tawdry eugenic project, in which a panoply of prejudices find expression. The circumscription of the race distances to be regulated is curious. The regulations are silent on women athletes with high levels of testosterone outperforming competitors in hammer throw and pole vault. Instead, in addition to the 400m, 400m hurdles and 800m, it includes the 1 500m and one mile races and everything in between. There is nothing in the IAAF document explaining this reasoning.

Confining the intervention to certain women athletes only and not extending this physiological equalisation to male athletes – where those with superior lung capacity or longer, better-muscled limbs leave the rest of the field far behind – drops the IAAF squarely in the swamp of misogyny.

The, by turn, turgid and facile language in the regulations, with its catch-all legalese, does nothing to hide the fact that the IAAF has zeroed in on a specific type of athlete, one who threatens the convenient and comfortable, if backward, view of a binary of classical male and female gender constructs. The regulations make a mealy-mouthed concession that some nations recognise an intersex category, but this is not an IAAF country.

The decision to expunge this inconvenient intersexuality is designed less to instil fairness than it is to calm the fragile gender sensibilities of sponsors, administrators, spectators and, yes, athletes who struggle with the intersex phenomenon.

By the IAAF’s reasoning, the regulations will make this uncomfortable problem go away so that it can continue to showcase telegenic women and men on the track and bank eye-watering television revenues. That’s the money shot, after all.

Science is not without agency in the perpetuation of a false consciousness and has often been deployed to justify the profane.

In her book Darwin’s Hunch Christa Kuljian exposes the profound racial bias inherent in the great palaeontological discoveries in southern Africa and beyond in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and how research was profoundly distorted by the received prejudice of researchers, resonating with establishment views on racial supremacy and feeding into its bigoted policies.

Apologists have pointed out that the prevailing cultural norms rendered this inevitable. This excuse is, however, not available to the IAAF in 2018.

The IAAF has fashioned a rod for its own back with this remedy for its problem with androgynous women athletes. The likelihood of a multijurisdictional legal challenge to this enterprise is strong and will evince an excoriating examination of the violation of human rights on which these regulations rest.

Monaco, the gilded principality that hosts the headquarters of the IAAF, is a long way from a small, dusty village in Limpopo, from where the athlete in the crosshairs of its regulatory gunsights Caster Semenya hails.

She has serenely ignored the slings and arrows and continues to excel. She has nothing to prove. That alone is medal-worthy.

FASTER, HIGHER, STRONGER is the mantra of global athletics. But the IAAF’s message to Caster is: “Not so fast.”

- Dasoo is the CEO of Health Equity Partners and former executive committee member of the SA Health Workers Congress


Caster Semenya is in the crosshairs of IAAF’s regulatory gunsights. What do you think about the new rules? SMS us on 35697 using the keyword CASTER and tell us what you think. Please include your name. SMSes cost R1.50

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