Caster Semenya is female South African runner who is the world champion in the 800 meter competitions. She’s a double Olympic champion. She’s been in the news lately because the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS), the highest court for international sports, has ruled in favor of the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), in their ruling that women who naturally have a testosterone level above a certain level who compete in track events from 400 meters to one mile would have to take medication to lower their testosterone level. At the moment, Semenya is the only elite athlete to be affected by this rule.
Is this rule morally correct? Should a competitor with an unusual genetic advantage be handicapped to make the playing field more “fair?” I’m troubled by a rule that targets one woman in particular. And since the woman in question is black and lesbian, I also wonder whether discrimination could be a factor in this rule. Did the IAAF do the right thing?
In the popular imagination, gender used to be a simple thing: you were a man, or you were a woman. A quick physical examination would reveal which one.
Gender has actually never been that simple. There have always been some people born with non-standard gender identification. The Talmud recognizes six different gender categories: zachar, a male; nekevah, a female; androgynos, someone with both male and female sexual characteristics; tumtum, someone with gender characteristics obscured or indeterminate; aylonit, a girl that doesn’t sexually mature at puberty and is infertile; and saris, which can either be a boy who naturally did not sexually mature, or a someone who had his sexual organs removed.
It is true that in our day, we have a proliferation of possible categories, both due to changing attitudes in society and to the physical possibility of gender reassignment surgery. There is a growing number of young people who identify themselves as “gender fluid,” not wanting to be put into any single particular category.
But many of our “new” categories can actually be mapped into the older Talmudic categories. The IAAF is arguing that Caster Semenya is, in essence, an androgynos and should not be allowed to compete in women’s events. Transgender people at various stages of transition could be viewed as either androgynos or in the case of transgender women possibly a saris. Antiquity had no category that would map to today’s transgender man, because such an outcome was not physically possible until the modern era.
But what does all this have to do with sports?
If sports were to be “gender blind,” you would have very few sports where elite female athletes could compete against men. The men’s world record for the full marathon (running 42.2 km. or 26.1 miles) is 2:01.39. The best time for a woman is 2:15.25. Women would never have a chance of winning a marathon. Caster Semenya’s personal best in the 800 meter dash is 1:54.25; the world record for women is held by Jarmila Kratochvílová, who ran a 1:53.28 race in 1983. The top men’s score, on the other hand, is 13 seconds faster, 1:40.91. The fastest woman wouldn’t even make it into the top 25 men. The 25th ranked man is still 11 seconds faster than the record for women.
So why have a separate competition for women? Don’t we want to know “who’s best,” and if that just happens to always be men, it’s just the way the world works?
Women also enjoy competing. It’s not only “not fair” for a woman to compete against a man, but it’s not interesting. If one of the goals of sport is to motivate people to get out there and train and better themselves, women will never feel very motivated to compete if they can never win. Women especially are inspired by watching elite women competing with each other.
What do we do with people who don’t neatly fit into the binary male/female categorization? The IAAF claims that Caster Semenya is “intersex” because she has some “male” characteristics, most specifically a very high level of testosterone. Testosterone is linked to the greater strength that men have; the IAAF claims Semenya’s higher testosterone level gives her an unfair advantage over “normal” female athletes. Their solution to make things “fair” is to require that she take medication that lowers her testosterone levels.
Can the rabbis provide us with some guidance? The rabbinical concern around people with unusual gender status is in deciding which mitzvot they are obligated to follow. They could choose to give an androgynous status of men, the status of women, the stringencies of both or exempt them from both. In different circumstances and for different purposes, they used all four options.
We now know that there is a genetic difference between men and women – men have a Y chromosome, and women do not. There are, however, cases where a woman has a Y chromosome (as does Semenya); does that make her a man?
One leading posek (rabbinic decisor), Rabbi Eliezer Waldenberg, says gender follows external sexual characteristics. Someone with exclusively female genitalia is treated as female, regardless of what’s going on with her chromosomes. There is much to recommend this approach – the visible genitalia will generally determine how a person is treated by others as well as how that person views himself or herself. Those are the things that define someone as a man or a woman. That’s why sex reassignment surgery is popular with transgender people – it gets their physiology to more closely align with their view of themselves.
If we apply this logic to Semenya, she’s definitely female. So does it make sense to have a rule that takes away her unusual genetic advantage?
I would suggest not.
Every elite athlete is a “genetic freak” to some degree. An average recreational runner would consider a sub-four-hour marathon a respectable time. Someone who could do under three hours would be considered elite in the world of average people. Going from there to someone who can run a marathon in close to two hours doesn’t happen just with training. It’s a genetic gift that those elite runners start with, and they then train to get the maximum out of the potential. The vast majority of us don’t have that potential.
As our understanding of genetics gets better, does that suggest we should come up with some way to counter any specific advantages we find? What if instead of higher testosterone, a female athlete had some other genetic abnormality, say an unusually high red blood cell count that allowed her blood to carry more oxygen? Should she have to take medication to take away that advantage so that the playing field is level?
It makes no sense to do that, because by definition the top athletes have some kind of unique genetic advantage. “Handicapping” people with unusual genetic qualities is confusing equality of results with equality of opportunity. Kurt Vonnegut wrote a story where society wanted everyone to be “equal.” Ballet dancers had to be loaded up with a bunch of weights to make them less graceful, so they’d be more like everyone else.
By any of the conventional definitions, Semenya is a woman and has been a woman all her life. She should be allowed to compete as a woman, and it would be unfair to take away her genetic advantage since other athletes have other genetic advantages that no one is proposing to take away. She had the misfortune that her genetic advantage is one that’s easy to find, and that is correlated with a trait of men. That’s not a reason to create a rule that targets the particular genetic advantage that she enjoys.
Especially since her best times are in line with other female elite runners – and she’s not even the world record holder, that seems to counter the claim that somehow she’s competing “like a man” because of her unique genetic qualities.
Even in a world that’s completely fair, there will be winners and losers. In athletics, there’s no denying that unique genetic gifts are a big part of what differentiates the winners from everyone else. Instead of trying to get rid of these differences, we should be celebrating them.The writer, a rabbi and businessman, answers ethical questions from readers, guided by Halacha, philosophy and common sense.
Dividing his time between Jerusalem and the US, he writes about ethics at ethics.neshamah.net/. Readers are invited to submit ethical dilemmas to email@example.com.
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