Whenever I see an athlete performing at the top of their field, I am overcome with awe. In fact, they don't even have to be athletes. My dad recently ran a marathon at 63 with two absolutely buggered Achilles tendons (and raised more than $20,000 for Hospice while he was at it – I'll "humble brag" on his behalf because I know he won't) and I was equally proud as Punch, astounded and thought he'd lost his marbles.
Amazing athletic feats, whether they're performed at the Olympics or the Rotorua Marathon, require training, perseverance, passion and dedication. And, in my dad's case anyway, a certain amount of stubborn madness. There aren't many mere mortals who have what it takes to trot around the marathon course or win Olympic gold medals, so I have a huge amount of respect for those who do.
Caster Semenya is one of the athletes that I admire. At 28, she has two Olympic golds under her belt and a slew of other championship victories. She burst on to the scene as a teenager and has performed consistently for more than a decade. Watching her run is like watching a powerful cat expertly chasing its prey. She deserves to go down as one of the great runners in history. Instead, she'll be remembered for the controversy surrounding her sex identity.
Semenya was born and grew up legally female. She underwent medical testing to determine her sex in 2009, after being duplicitously told that it was a doping test. Results of the supposedly confidential test leaked and apparently showed that Semenya had differences of sex development (DSD). Ever since, she has been targeted by official bodies, the media and competitors. Her impressive performances on the track are repeatedly overshadowed by new regulations cooked up to try to neatly divide the spectrum of human sex identity into two discrete boxes, and thus to force Semenya to either undergo medical interventions or to leave the sport she's dedicated her life to.
The most recent of these regulations is a ruling by the International Association of Athletics Federations that would require female athletes with DSD to take medication to reduce the level of testosterone naturally produced by their bodies. Semenya unsuccessfully appealed the regulations in the Court of Arbitration for Sport, and later appealed to Switzerland's Federal Supreme Court, which suspended the IAAF's new regulation for Semenya while it waits to hear her case.
The IAAF responded to the news that its regulations had been temporarily quashed by saying, "We will continue to fight for what we believe is in the best interests of all female athletes in our sport."
The crux of the case is the perceived unfairness to female athletes without differences of sex development when competing against athletes with DSD. The glaringly obvious fact that some athletes have always had natural advantages has seemingly been lost upon the athletics governing body.
Ian Thorpe, for example, had size 17 feet. Some scientists suggested they worked like flippers. He didn't have to cut them in half. Many professional basketballers are basically giants, but there's no suggestion they should have to undergo medical interventions to even the playing field for shorter players. Throughout time, there have been countless famous athletes that have had natural physical advantages over their competition. Diversity in a population is a completely normal feature of human biology.
Semenya, who has been the subject of countless reports about her sex identity suggesting that she is intersex (when an individual is born with diverse sex characteristics), is one such athlete with a possible physical advantage. She didn't ask to be born with DSD any more than Thorpe asked to grow up to have size 17 feet and an arm span of 190cm. And both advantages would be arguably useless if the athletes born with them didn't train with considerable passion, determination and dedication. You don't just win Olympic gold medals because you're born with big feet or diverse sex characteristics.
Lizzie Marvelly: Why are sex victims assumed to be guilty?
Lizzie Marvelly: Heroic endeavour or murderous invasion?
Intersex people are far more common than you probably think. Statistically, there are about as many intersex people in the world as there are redheads. Since the beginning of time, a small but significant percentage of human beings have been born with genitalia, internal organs or chromosomes that don't perfectly align with the medical definitions of male or female. That doesn't make them unnatural. Intersex people, with their particular sex characteristics, are as natural as anyone else. So why should they be forced to take medications they don't need in order to comply with an organisation's narrow definitions of sex identity?
The IAAF's regulations have been condemned by the World Medical Association. "No physician can be forced to administer these drugs, and we definitely urge our colleagues to refrain from giving hormonally active medication to athletes simply because some regulations demand it," chairman Dr Frank Ulrich Montgomery said. "In a way, this is inverse doping — to reduce the normal level of testosterone in this woman."
Semenya just wants to run in the body she was born with. Ironically, while she's great, she's not the best. She hasn't cracked a world record. There have been other women (presumably without DSD) who have been faster. Yet she has been singled out, had her private medical information become fodder for the sporting press, and fielded criticism simply for doing well.
Surely forcing an athlete to take drugs in order to be able to participate in their sport is the antithesis of what sport should stand for. Despite the dogged head-in-the-sand attitude of the IAAF, sex has never been a binary. Intersex people have always existed, and they don't deserve to be punished simply because they were born outside of an arbitrary social construct that claims that there are only male and female human beings.
Banning Semenya, or forcing her to take unnecessary medication would be infringements upon her human rights. She deserves to be allowed to run free.