Caster Semenya. Credit: Saeed Khan AFP/Getty

July 6, 2021   5 mins

What makes a woman? According to the International Olympic Committee, the most important thing is what she lacks: specifically, she must not have more than the regulation level of testosterone.

That’s the level that Laurel Hubbard (a mediocre male weightlifter from New Zealand who now identifies as a woman) was required to maintain for a minimum of 12 months in order to compete at this year’s Olympics against women. That’s also the level that South African middle-distance runner Caster Semenya (who won gold in the women’s 800 metres in 2012 and 2016) refused to medicate herself down to. Consequently, Semenya is banned from defending her title in Tokyo. (Although eligible for the 5,000 metres, she did not qualify.)

For over a decade, Semenya has been both a celebrated athlete and the object of harsh, probing curiosity. In 2008, when Semenya was the world champion in the 800 metres, the journalist Ariel Levy visited Semenya’s former club in the devastatingly poor Limpopo province. Here, Levy met a small girl who informed her: “I will be the world champion. I want to participate in athletics and have a scholarship. Caster is making me proud. She won. She put our club on the map.”

But even before Semenya had made a name beyond her birthplace, it was being asked whether it was right for her to compete at all, never mind win. There were murmurs that Semenya — tall, narrow-hipped, flat-chested, deep-voiced and powerful as she was — must have an intersex condition. Bluntly, people wondered: was she female at all? Semenya’s former coach told Levy that the young runner was routinely summoned to the toilets so she could prove to her rivals that she had the right genitals for her race.

If Semenya was able to accept such intrusions philosophically at first, over time they became more and more profound, until eventually she found herself in front of the Court of Arbitration for Sport in 2019, fighting against the requirement to suppress her natural testosterone levels. (The 5 nmol/L ceiling is still over twice the normal level for women.) CAS ultimately upheld the limit: the judgment it issued is lengthy, technical and heartbreaking.

Heartbreaking, because what is clear throughout Semenya’s testimony is that she has never doubted that she’s a woman. The public scrutiny of her sex, she said, had been “atrocious and humiliating” — and discriminatory too, since she argued that no comparable questions would be asked of a male athlete. The medication she took to reduce her testosterone made her ill, and any drop in her performance should be put down to that rather than seen as confirmation that she had an unfair hormonal advantage. It felt, she said, like a “punishment” for her body.

Sport is nothing without fairness. Every race, every match, every competition is a quest to find — and to reward — the exceptional within a given discipline. It’s true that without diligent training, even the most physically gifted will never make it within sight of the podium; but it’s also true that without those physical gifts, no amount of graft will turn you into an athlete. Beyond issues of basic safety, the baseline logic of every rule in sport is to exclude external influences that might obscure the quest for excellence.

That’s why doping is banned. It’s why running shoes and swimming costumes (and, in the Paralympics, prosthetics) are exhaustingly debated: at what point does “more efficient” shade into “cheating”? It’s why there are separate male and female competitions: the inarguable advantages produced by a male puberty in terms of height, strength and speed mean that in a mixed competition, outstanding women would always be overshadowed by men. And it’s why the Semenya question is so painful.

Clearly, her treatment has been unfair, and worse than unfair. There’s a grotesque, prying quality to reading the CAS judgment as it itemises her body, the contents of her blood, the nature of her chromosomes. But those chromosomes are 46XY — that is, male. Should her female competitors accept that as fair? As hard as they push their bodies, and as much as those bodies have to give, there are things that the XX will never be able to achieve.

It’s important to note that even Semenya’s best performances have never approached the speeds that men achieve. She doesn’t even hold a world record. But she did come close to breaking the women’s 800 metre time, which was set in the doping heyday of the Eighties. In other words, Semenya is suspiciously fast for a woman, but not fast enough to be exceptional as a man. She’s stranded in a hinterland of sex that makes her talent seem either excessive or inadequate. Extraordinary as she is, there’s no way for her to win.

Semenya is the most prominent athlete caught in this hormonal bind, but not the only one. In 2014, Indian sprinter Dutee Chand was barred from competition over her elevated testosterone (she successfully appealed the decision); last week, Namibian sprinters Christine Mboma and Beatrice Masilingi were both disqualified from the 400m in Tokyo for the same reason. Ugandan runner Annet Negesa had surgery to “fix” her intersex condition: her performances never recovered. For any athlete in this situation, the experience is intrusive, cruel and devastating. Some will have no idea that there’s anything unusual about their body until it becomes a matter of public dispute.

Proponents of trans women’s inclusion in female sports will often point to such examples as evidence of the egregious effects of gatekeeping sex. See, they say — by trying to keep males out, you only harm women. It’s even argued that the suspicion of Semenya is a form of racism, since her masculine appearance defies white beauty standards (although it’s clearly not Semenya’s race that makes her, in Levy’s description, “breathtakingly butch”). None of which has any relevance to Laurel Hubbard, who is unambiguously male and undeniably white.

There’s a terrible injustice in Hubbard being able to compete at Tokyo while Semenya cannot. The extent of testosterone’s effect on Semenya’s body is debatable; the extent of its effect on Hubbard, who has been through a regular male puberty, is not. And reducing the circulating testosterone in a male body can make an individual slow in comparison to a man, but it doesn’t make them female: the advantages of sex remain long after transition. Hubbard will never be forced through the cruel exposures inflicted on Semenya, because Hubbard’s sex is not in doubt.

Despite trans activist efforts to treat “intersex” and “trans” as indistinguishable issues, they are simply not the same. One of Semenya’s objections to enforced testosterone regulation was that it was an attempt “to convert the DSD [difference of sex development] Regulations into a shadow transgender rule”. The effects of male adolescence being what they are, “transgender” can be read as “transwomen” here: trans men present no challenge whatsoever to the integrity of men’s sport. In other words, Semenya believed that a rule targeting intersex women was actually being shaped by consideration of male athletes who wished to enter female competition.

If that’s true, it’s typical. Repeatedly, intersex people’s lives are hijacked to prove that “sex is a spectrum”, so that undoubtedly male people can pretend the class of “female” is too hazy to exclude anyone from. But sex is not a spectrum. Every difference of sex development is an atypical presentation of either the male or female body — there is no “in-between”. Every person with a DSD deserves considerably better than to be recruited as a human shield for the infiltration of femaleness. People with DSDs have long campaigned against compulsory treatments; trans activists argue that without surgery and hormones, trans people will die.

In sport, sex should be simple: the case for separate male and female competition is so stark that only a blindness to women’s interests could lead anyone to neglect it. But in sport, sex is inevitably complicated: the very pertinence of sex to performance means that women with intersex conditions are liable to come under question, and every case will have its own subtleties. What shouldn’t be difficult is this: whatever “being a woman” means, there’s more to it than a deficiency of testosterone, and treating a woman like Semenya decently cannot require dissolving the notion of “women” altogether.

Sarah Ditum is a columnist, critic and feature writer.