The Case of Caster Semenya

Recently some controversy has erupted around the person of Caster Semenya, a very succesful athlete from South Africa who has broken world records and was poised to compete in the 800 meter finals in Berlin when doubts were raised about her sex, and thereby her eligibility to compete in the female olympics. There are conflicting and uncertain sources as to the results of the subsequent tests for sex, but it looks like there may be a case of hermaphroditism or pseudo-hermaphroditism involved. In this case, the person has high testosterone levels and a Y chromosome, yet has developed as a woman, possibly due to insensitivity to testosterone in the phase of physical development.(1) This would make her a ‘genetic male’, yet for all social purposes a female (female-gendered), for which the term ‘intersexed’ could be used (but need not necessarily).

Of course, there is some argument about her eligibility, not in the last place because of her excellent performance so far – she won the gold medal in the aforementioned Berlin race. This would give any competitors an easy motive and opportunity to eliminate her as competition. Yet, the rules of the IAAF clearly indicate that any “conditions that accord no advantage over other females” are to be permitted, presumably regardless of what implications these may be thought to have for her ‘sex status’. In the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, several women who were declared ‘genetic males’ were nonetheless allowed to compete in the female gender sports. The IAAF also permits male-to-female transsexuals to compete as females, provided they have fully transitioned, including hormone therapy. (2)

What makes this case interesting is not so much the consequences for the legitimacy of the athletics medals doled out in Berlin recently, but more what it tells us about the status of sex and gender in something with as strong a social status as sports. In the ancient world, the Olympics did not have any such gender split in sports participation, because sports were conceived as a male undertaking to begin with, and there were no female athletes. The other side of this is that gymnastics by the males were done in the nude, as the etymology of the word indicates. In our current society, a particularly homosocial environment of that kind with nudity would have strong homosexual connotations (and indeed it would be hard to deny a homoerotic element to it in classical Greek society), and as a result would never be generally accepted or popular. Nonetheless, the implication that sports and especially competitive, high-level sports activities are particularly a masculine affair is something still widespread.(3) Some of the background of this can be explained by the traditional role of males as workers performing physical labor outside the house, whereas females traditionally are to do work in and around the house and family unit. Therefore, public physical activity is perceived as within the male domain.

Of course, with the increasing ‘public’ role of women not just in the West but all over the world since the Industrial Revolution, and especially in the modern period when female participation in wage labor is higher than ever, such traditional divisions of domain have become wholly obsolete. As a result, female sports activities have come up as a broadly accepted phenomenon since the late 19th century. Of course, they are still limited by various traditional obstructions, both of religious and of patriarchal kind, which often overlap. On the one hand, there are the religious taboos on particular forms of clothing for women and general sentiments against women being too public about their bodies, which make sports difficult for them in a physical manner. On the other hand, there are the social-cultural norms which militate against female athleticism and the idea of the ‘strong female’, which the patriarchically raised male perceives as a threat. As all threats to masculinity, the traditional response is one of derision and contempt, in an attempt to repress the challenge to patriarchy by showing its futile and marginal nature. Physically strong females, such as succesful female tennis players, are often for these reasons derided as lesbians. It is therefore not surprising that precisely the sports requiring most physical strength on the part of women, namely gymnastics, have been the ones latest to open themselves to female participation: women were only allowed to take part in the new Olympics gymnastics events as teams in 1928, and individually since 1952.(4) Of course, the reverse also holds, as males breaking the traditional mold are equally a threat to the existing patriarchal structure, and therefore are equally derided. Not just male ballet dancers or figure skaters, but even field hockey players and in the United States even football players are often derided as homosexual.

Given the now widespread acceptance of female sports, and even some participation in gendered sports of people not of the ‘favored’ gender as described above, it becomes increasingly difficult to maintain the traditional patriarchal norms within these sports. As a result, the attempts to do so get ever more instinctive and knee-jerking. One good example of this phenomenon is how extremely disfavored actual, rather than implied, homosexuality is among professional sports players, and this goes as always most of all for the male competitors. In all of professional football, the most popular sport in the world, there is currently not one single top player who is openly homosexual. In the very few cases where this has been attempted, it has led to immediately negative consequences. A Brazilian player who was implied to be gay, although this was generally perceived to be true, felt his stature so damaged by the event that he sued the person ‘outing’ him; the judge subsequently told him that being openly homosexual was incompatible with a “masculine sport” such as football.(5) Also infamous is the case of Justin Fashanu, who came out as gay while playing fairly high in the English leagues. He was subsequently described as an “outcast” by his own brother, rejected by the team coach, and eventually ended up committing suicide. After such examples, it is not surprising that the football world still holds strong as a bulwark of patriarchal capitalism.(6) Some other less homosocial sports, such as women’s tennis, are less hostile overall. But even there players usually wait until the end of their career before coming out; as did Olivier Rouyer, who coached football club AS Nancy-Lorraine in the 1990s, and similar events have happened in Norway and elsewhere.

All these things taken into account, it is clear that the social costs of patriarchy in sports are significant. One should in fact challenge the need for such a competitive basis of professional sports in the first place, given how it encourages competitive individualism and capitalization of physical creativity, and as such serves to support capitalism. But even if we wish to maintain the gender split in sports for the sake of keeping competitive sports competitive, it is not clear that this is well-served by doing so along patriarchal lines, but rather one could consider having competitions sorted based on the proportion of testosterone in the body, for example. This would at least provide a scientific standard rather than an arbitrary and culturally reactionary one. This is no mere worry of the wealthy either: in many parts of the world, professional sports are a way to get out of poverty, although an unlikely one (and in some cases dangerously overemphasized). For black Americans, basketball is sometimes the only way out of the ghetto. In South Africa itself, Semenya was from an impoverished and working-class background, and had very few facilities or opportunities available to her when she was young. That she succeeded nonetheless to become a world-class athletic star is to be admired and commended. The implications of this are clear in her home country: it would be a disgrace if all this were to be rejected for the purpose of maintaining patriarchy in sports, especially when the sports arena is one of the few areas where people from the Third World can truly compete at a somewhat equal level with the First.(7)

(1), (2)
(3) “GENDER & SPORT: Mainstreaming Gender in Sports Projects”. Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation.
(4) Alisa Alexander, “Culture, Race, and Gender in Sports”.
(5) “Brazil judge in gay football row”. BBC News (August 4, 2007).
(6) Tony Cascarino, “Is it time to open the closet?”. The Times (April 28, 2003).
(7) Anonymous, “International Sports, Gender, and Race: The Semenya Sex Row”. The Zeleza Post.


An insightful writeup, though I wonder how much of the controversy surrounding Caster stems from the underlying transphobia in our culture. That is, of course, a whole different can of worms.

In fact, my article also intended to hint in that direction. But because the case doesn’t involve any actual transgender people, it can’t (yet) be used as an example of this.

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