Semenya Case Shows Complex Ethics of Fairness in Sport

Caster Semenya, the 18-year-old track-and-field phenomenon from South Africa, is a woman whose hormonal chemistry is unusual for the average adult female. Test results are reported to show that her body naturally secretes three times the normal female levels of testosterone, the dominant “male” hormone, which some competitors say gives her an “unfair advantage”.

The issue has raised perhaps the most serious challenge to the notion of fairness in sport, and to conventional attitudes about gender. For instance, should Semenya be weaker than she is, if she were “fully” female? Is that idea in itself not demeaning to women? Is there even a specific provision in international sporting regulations that requires women to be notably weaker than or slower than men?

Semenya was born female and has always been treated like a girl, but now the argument is that her body developed in such a way that she is too powerful, too strong, too fast, to be a woman. 

The question is fundamental to the very structure of organized sports, and goes far beyond the question of gender. For instance: it is easy to understand why it is wrong that one athlete use a “performance-enhancing” substance that is banned, and that should not be tolerated. Uppers, steroids and human growth hormone, are dangerous to athletes and harm the physical and spiritual quality of competition.

But the logic of the Semenya question is very different: if she suffers from a naturally occurring condition, and her body is as it is through no direct action of her own, is barring her from competition not comparable to excluding athletes whose legs are too long, or whose muscles have too much ease with fast-twitch reflex? How can one determine who is too naturally advantaged to compete?

In American football, there are running backs, wide receivers and defensive backs that can run two or even three times faster than some of the stockier linemen on the field. Is this not “an unfair advantage” over those players that might have to chase them? Is a team not buying its way into victory if it contracts a world-class sprinter (like Herschel Walker or Bo Jackson) to compete against opponents whose defensive linemen might be overweight and sluggish?

It would be hard to make such an argument, certainly. And there are examples of why that kind of reasoning is flawed, even where the two athletes being compared are in fact performing the same competitive function (running the same race, for instance, instead of playing two different roles on a football field).

Tiger Woods was once “supernatural”, “unbeatable”, until a new generation of players emerged, and some of the veterans adapted their game; now there is more competition, at a higher level. The Williams sisters, Venus and Serena, were thought to be not only dominant, winning nearly every grand slam for years, they were said to have an “unfair advantage”, because they were “bigger” and “stronger” than female tennis players traditionally were. (There was clearly an element of racial bias in some of that criticism, but it was also fundamentally untrue—their advantage came with skill, precision, power [which in tennis means smooth strokes making solid contact] and hard work.)

It turns out, they are extremely good, but also fallible, mortal, and not at all invincible. Players who played differently, or adapted their games to compete, were able to compete at a higher level, and women’s tennis has improved dramatically over the last 12 years. Some players are bigger and more powerful, or simply better athletes, able to run faster and play longer, but some have just become more precise, more resilient, learned how to “counter-punch”.

Though specific content from Semenya’s tests has not been made public, reports about the gender identification exams she underwent suggest she does not have a uterus or ovaries and that she may have internal glands like male testicles producing an inordinate amount of testosterone, as compared to the average woman. It is suggested this means she might be all or part male.

Those who challenge Semenya’s right to compete in the international track-and-field women’s division argue that these biological variations make her not adequately female to participate. This particular question may never have been asked in so deliberate, so comprehensive, so problematic and so judicious an environment before, and how to assign Semenya to one category or another may indeed be a task for which international sporting organizations are not philosophically or legally sophisticated enough.

Part of the problem with the “science” of these gender tests is that they don’t give any scientific assessment of the actual health or competitive impact of Semenya’s condition. While certain tests can determine hormone levels, can even determine if those levels are biologically inborn or not, can determine if she has glands that more closely resemble testicles or ovaries, located inside her body, it is not clear that any of those findings gives “scientific proof” of gender.

That question aside, the tests also provide little to no information on the overall metabolic impact of Semenya’s condition: has she had to struggle with physical difficulties related to this condition? has it impacted the way in which her body metabolizes certain nutrients? In effect, has her condition made it necessary for her to work harder or not? Unless the testing she has been forced to undergo is able to decide whether or not her performance is based on hard work or not, there is no way whatsoever to even begin to judge “fairness”.

And there exists the very real problem of Caster Semenya’s basic rights. South Africa has threatened to take the issue to an international human rights tribunal, and says it will use all possible legal avenues to defend its champion athlete. Some reports suggest that the IAAF rules, which govern international track-and-field competition, would allow Semenya to compete anyway, if “her condition was treated”, but of course, it remains to be determined what the nature of that “condition” is, and what sort of treatment would make her body comparable enough to the average female athlete’s body to make her eligible for competition.

That point, again, may open a legal and ethical Pandora’s Box, which might call into question what is considered to be a “fair” or an “unfair” naturally occurring physique. Should basketball players not be allowed to be taller than 6’10”? Why not 6’9″ or 6’11”? Who should be excluded, and on what grounds? Is world class athletics supposed to be a competition among the average, or among the extraordinary? Or is that too simplistic?

All in all, the questions of who Caster Semenya is and what rights she has comprise a human riddle as deep and perplexing as any other. It is impossible to assign a single identity to a person, especially if the proposed task is to first identify an inborn essence and then illustrate proofs of that essence in the individual’s behavior. Ethically, this is a dangerous game, because it allows for assigning different values to different people, stratifying rights and leading to a justification for bias or segregation.

In South Africa, such an approach to the ethics of fairness is, perhaps more than anywhere else, offensive, to say the least. Semenya’s ethical responsibilities and her ethical status should not be judged based on a hormone test, but on her choices and her actions. If she has not committed deliberate acts to cheat or to seize an unfair advantage, then how can she be banned from something just for being better than everyone else?

If she has flagrantly violated fundamental and established existing rules of fair play, if she has somehow sought to game the system, then one can see there is room for some sanction. But the feeling seems to be that she is a hapless victim who fell into this problem through no fault of her own. The ethical bind is not one of her own making or which should hold her fate in its grip, but rather one that pertains to us all, that comments on the rights of all people, as people.

Any new ethical rationale invented to apply specifically to her case will have to be broadened and will apply to others, so getting it right isn’t just about Semenya’s gender categorization according to conventional science… it’s about what kind of questions we want athletes to answer, and how, before being allowed to compete… it’s about whether we want global society to organize itself around an idea of “fair play” that disqualifies certain people from participation, based solely on their uniqueness.

Ultimately, and first of all, we must ask what that would mean for the rights the rest of us, common or unique as we may be in any given way, expect to enjoy. 

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