There’s an Olympics story that’s lurking in the days ahead and I want you to be prepared for seeing it now that the Track and Field program has begun. This isn’t a human-interest story per se. But it’s a story that may challenge your own humanity (as it has mine). Please understand I am NOT making any political point here. This is not written to advance any agenda (I don’t have one), but our own spirits.
Caster Semenya is a South African woman who will begin her run for gold in the 800 on Wednesday. You may remember her because she’s been embroiled in controversy ever since 2009 when she burst onto the track scene as an 18-year old. The storm isn’t because of doping but because of her sex (as in male and female). As we move on here, keep two things in mind about sex and gender. First, gender is a social construct – whether YOU perceive yourself to be male or female. Caster is NOT transgender. She did NOT change from a man to a woman. Second, sex (as opposed to gender) is a biological trait and not as simple as most believe it is. Sex is not binary – male or female. There is a spectrum people fall onto with sex and MOST fall more or less as what we classify male or female. Caster is different.
At base, most tend to think of sex as body parts. It isn’t. A more advanced understanding looks to genetics – more specifically chromosomes. In school, we learned that XY is male and XX is female. But it isn’t always so. Why? We must go deeper. There are genes on each chromosome that can affect sex. You can have an XY female and an XX male. This is what’s known as intersex. It’s 100% genetics. In fact, it happens to about 1 in 20,000 people in the U.S. That’s about 16,000 total people in our country. People can also get EXTRA chromosomes, making them XXY (Klinefelter’s syndrome) or XYY, even XXXXX.
Caster has hyperandrogenism – an intersex condition characterized by naturally-occurring high levels of testosterone (High-T). Instead of a uterus, she has internal testes that never descended. In most all other ways, she’s a woman, except for this. She didn’t choose it. And Caster doesn’t take steroids (exogenous testosterone). She produces it naturally in her body (endogenous testosterone). Physically, women with high-T can develop with the look of a man – for example, large muscles and a deep voice, both of which Caster has. The issue with Caster is that testosterone can also be a significant positive factor in athletic performance.
After Semenya won the 800m World Championship in 2009, the IAAF (the international track and field federation) and the IOC (International Olympic Committee), created some rules that stipulated female athletes with high-T would have to undergo hormone therapy to reduce their testosterone levels in order to compete as women. Caster was banned from meets for more than a year, abided by the rules, and suffered as a result.
But the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS), the high court of athletics, struck down the Hyperandrogenism Regulation as discriminatory because of a lawsuit by another female high-T track athlete – Dutee Chand of India. The CAS told the IAAF and the IOC that they had to produce significant, peer-reviewed scientific evidence that naturally occurring (endogenous) testosterone was really responsible for unfair performance among females. And that hasn’t been done yet.
So Caster will run in this year’s Olympics. Her countrymen have begun the hashtag #HandsOffSemenya but the narrative of her story will probably remain too simplistic if you happen to hear of her again, which you probably will, because she’s favored for gold. Her picture will be shown, her sex questioned, and the typical viewer will say, “Hmmm… she has an advantage. She sure looks like a man.” And you’ll see people get ugly about it. You’ll see brutal social media posts. Many will disparage her as they have in the past. And, as you’ve read here, that’s absolutely unfair. The situation isn’t straightforward.
A young elementary student believes math is only addition and subtraction. But mathematics Ph.D’s fully understand the wide-ranging complexity of the discipline. So, too, is sex complicated and I never knew it until a couple years ago.
This isn’t Caster’s fault. She was truly and absolutely born this way. It’s 100% genetic. This woman just loves to run and compete. That’s it. Caster’s fastest time is still two full seconds off the world record set in 1983. In fact, her best 800 time is only the 12th best ever run by a woman in the 800. We just happen to be in a period of time where the world’s best female 800m runners aren’t putting up historically fast times so she’s excelling in her placing.
Deeper and far more important than sex, Caster is a human being with the same feelings you and I have. Imagine your heart beating inside of Caster’s chest. You’ve done nothing wrong but people scream all kinds of nasty things at you. Jesus and our other spiritual heroes see BEYOND people’s external appearances into their hearts and souls.
As far as sports is concerned, I have no idea the right ruling. The IAAF has proposed limiting the amount of testosterone a competing woman is allowed to have in their body. Most women have an average testosterone volume of 0.69 nmol/L. They’ve proposed a max for women of 10 nmol/L. But here’s what I do know – Caster Semenya is made of dust just like you and me.
Very few other athletes at these Games – indeed, very few human beings in history – have ever endured the public scrutiny and undeserved humiliation she has. She must be one of the strongest people on the planet to endure what she has. When you see Caster Semenya this coming week, don’t take the bait of controversy.
Keep Caster’s humanity first. The quality of her running will be on display in just a few days.
And so, too, I fear, the quality of many viewers’ humanity. All humans deserve kindness, including Caster Semenya.