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Caster Semenya, What’s Next?

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Guest Post: Torbjörn Tännsjö, Kristian Claëson Emeritus Professor of Practical Philosophy

Statistically speaking, women perform less well than men in most sports. Their top results are 10-12 % worse than those of men. If they are to have a chance to compete at the top level, they need a protected space. At least, this has been the received wisdom among sports authorities. The example of Caster Semenya means that this policy has reached the end of the road. What has surfaced is the fact that the idea of a special protected female sphere within sports doesn’t stand up to recent knowledge within medicine and psychology. Caster Semenya is the stone that tipped the scales. The very notion of being female has been put under pressure.

The theory of science teaches us that a fruitful classification must serve an important purpose. In addition to this, the classes used should be mutually exclusive and exhaustive. Every classified individual should belong to one class only and everyone should belong to some class. Historically, we have tended to think that this is true of the classification of human beings into the classes of being female and male. We were wrong. And today it is common knowledge that we were wrong. However, the sports authorities have turned a blind eye to this knowledge.

To break it down in simple terms, there are three main ways of distinguishing between female and male. We may look at sex chromosomes, at external sex organs, or at perceived identity. It is possible to be male in terms of sex chromosomes but female in terms of both external sex organs and psychological identity. Caster Semenya gives witness to this (See Robert Johnson, ‘What No One is Telling You About Caster Semenya: She Has XY Chromosomes’, LetsRun, 2 May 2019). We know also that some individuals with female sex chromosomes (XX) and external female sex organs don’t identify as female. They seek ‘correction’ of their external sex organs. And it is the other way around with some individuals with male sex chromosomes (XY) and male external sex organs. They don’t identify as male and they seek correction of their external sex organs. Even  classification based purely on sex chromosomes is not as simple as one may think. Some individuals lack an X chromosome (X, Turner syndrome) while some have an extra X chromosome (XXY, Klinefelter). And there are other variations as well.

How should sports authorities best handle this? Should they keep turning a blind eye to these facts or should they try to face up to them?

The Semenya case, and the ruling from the Court of Arbitration in Sport (CAS) that Semenya needs to medically lower her testosterone levels if she wants to keep competing in the sporting events she excels in currently, indicates that they wish to keep turning a blind eye to the fact. This is silly. It means that they have maneuvered themselves into a position where they demand from some athletes (Semenya) that they take medication in order to reduce their capacity to excel ,while others are forbidden to use medication in order to enhance their capacity. One reason why the latter (doping) has been forbidden is with reference to the medical hazards associated with the use of medicines for non-medical purposes. But if it is dangerous to use medicine to enhance one’s capacities it is probably also dangerous to use them to lower one’s capacity. Many medical authorities have protested against the ruling from CAS on this basis, including, among others, the Swedish Medical Association. The position now adopted by CAS is stupid. There is no way that it can prevail. But is there any way to meet the challenge from Caster Semenya, if we want to give women a chance of competing and excelling in sport? There is. What is needed is to find a system of classification satisfying the following desiderata?

  1. It consists of classes that are mutually exclusive;
  2. It is complete; and
  3. It renders it possible for women to compete on equal terms with men

I will use the terms ‘women’ and ‘men’ in an ordinary loose sense (for individuals who classify as women or men an all the competing criteria, that is for the majority of human beings).

It seems to me that this should be a feasible task. Step one, then, would be to abolish the segregation between women and men. We need to find other criteria.

It is silly to focus on the distinction between women and men. It is only statistically speaking that women perform worse than men in sports. Some women perform better than most men. However, some men perform better than all women. This is what creates the problem. However, sex per se is of no importance to how an individual performs in sport. This invites the idea that one should discriminate instead on grounds of direct and causal importance to how we perform.

As a matter of fact, if we adopt a charitable interpretation of the ruling of CAS it means that they have taken a first step in this direction. But even the focus on testosterone levels is awkward. First of all, it is controversial whether natural testosterone really gives a competitive edge (see Se Katrina Karkazis and Rebecca Jordan-Young, Debating a testosterone “sex gap”, Science, 22 May 2015, about this). And, more importantly, even if it does, it does so only indirectly. What is of direct importance to how an individual performs are more mundane facts such as how big are her muscles, how well does her blood transport oxygen, how long are her legs or arms, and so forth. But then, why not focus on these directly relevant characteristics rather than on sex, testosterone, or what have you?

This is a true challenge to sports authorities, I concede that, but it is a thrilling one. And it is of note that within some sports some steps in this direction have already been taken. Think of boxing. We do not allow a boxer weighing 105 pounds to box with one weighing 200 pounds.

It is possible to build on these ideas and to construct systems of classification suited to each individual sport, allowing for women (conventionally speaking) to defeat men (again conventionally speaking). Here a lot of research is needed and should be funded.

And as an extra bonus. Today professional sport is the only place where sex discrimination is openly and shamelessly practised. Wouldn’t it be nice if one could get rid of it also in this, its very last stronghold?

Torbjörn Tännsjö
Kristian Claëson Emeritus Professor of Practical Philosophy
Department of Philosophy
Stockholm University
106 91 Stockholm

Most recent books,  Taking Life. Three Theories on the Ethics of Killing (Oxford University Press, 2015 and Setting Health-Care Priorities. What Ethical Theories Tell Us (Oxford University Press, forthcoming in June, 2019).


The article was published in Swedish by the leading Swedish Newspaper Dagens Nyheter on 9 April, 2019.

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10 Comment on this post

  1. Very interesting and well reasoned. Your point about the inconsistency in CAS policy when they endorse the use of medications, with possible medical hazards, to reduce Semenya’s testosterone, is excellent. The rest of the article only gets better. I agree that it will be challenging, thrilling and nice to refine our sport classifications, like in your boxing example. It seems like doing so will be a net-positive for everyone involved with who-knows-how-many unplanned positive externalities.

    Great article, thank you.

  2. Also one can’t deny the cleaver twist in words: has to lower testosterone leves ‘if she wants to keep competing in the sporting events she excels in currently’. He is free to run in male events. Unfortunately biology is not a choice, and like said in the previous comment, the classification is simple: if you have a Y you are considered a male.

  3. “Here a lot of research is needed and should be funded.”

    Well, fetch me my fainting couch – I did not see that one coming at all!

  4. It’s not clear to me why women have a right to compete against each other in sports. Should, for example, short men have a right to compete against other short men in basketball?

    1. I have done exactly that. My high school had an intramural basketball team for boys under 5’10”.

  5. “The theory of science teaches us that a fruitful classification must serve an important purpose. In addition to this, the classes used should be mutually exclusive and exhaustive. Every classified individual should belong to one class only and everyone should belong to some class.”

    No, it doesn’t. There are plenty of fruitful classifications that are not mutually exclusive nor exhaustive. Such a theory would contradict any reasonable study of evolution, presenting difficulty in speciation. Whether based on morphology, phylogenetics, behavior, or evolutionary niche, there are boundary cases that pose problems for any concept of species in biology. Ideally, a classification should approach being mutually exclusive and exhaustive, but no classification in practice meets this.

    Now, in the case of human self-identification works for most people when identifying traits in a way that does not work for other species– and yet there too there are individuals who for whatever reason are not able to clearly articulate their self-identification (whether of gender, ethnicity, or what have you).

    That the premise is flawed does not vitiate the argument that all sports should adopt the sort of weight class segregation seen in sports like boxing and wrestling, though.

  6. This a complex issue and speaking without being an expert can result in saying silly things (I am also not an expert). However, I don’t understand what the author means when stating that the CAS decision is stupid and the conclusion. The reasons for sex-based discrimination for most sports should be obvious to anyone there is nothing “shameless” about it. A “10-12%” difference in performance in professional sport is a massive gap that justifies sports being categorized by gender. We are not talking in ” football terms” of a “4-0” difference but about a “20-0” difference, something which the author of this post does not seem to quite understand. Why should this be put into question because of a group of women which comprises maybe 0.01% of total population? Caster Semenya should not be allowed to compete, I am very sorry for her, but it seems like a fair decision. The proposed solution analogous to boxing categories seems silly to me and it would create even more problems (ie, more opportunities for cheating).

  7. Sigh, it is hard to avoid the impression that people espousing the view presented in this article have not competed very much themselves, in any sport… women are on average 10-12% less “able to express the kind of features that make someone excel in almost all competitive sports”? Nice, they also tend to concentrate more around average values (the standard deviation of female distributions of most polygenic characters tend to be lower than males’), which means that if you force (let?) them compete with males, in almost any sport, the 100 first competitors are going to be male, both at world, country and regional levels. Not very inspiring for women. But again, maybe somebody that doesn’t regularly compete doesn’t assign much value to seeing on the top of the podium somebody you can identify with (and which you may dream of replacing some day), something he would be denying to half the population (the female half) if his idea of abolishing what he terms “gender discrimantion” were enacted.

    Indeed, the author strangely forgets to mention that in sports that have different categories for different body weights, as boxing, weightlifting, judo, powerlifting, wrestling, etc. there are still separate categories for men and women. You cannot expect a 105 pounds weighlifter to lift more than a 200 pounds one… any more than you can expect a 105 pound female weightlifter lift more than a 105 pounds male one. It smply will never happen. You may try to disguise it as much as you can, the moment you eliminate separate female categories you effectively send all the women competitors to their homes, as they would be relegated to the last positions in sports requiring strength, speed, power production, mass or heigth (which, again, constitute 99% of sports).

    To top off a very misinformed article, the author resurrects the old canard of “it is not clear that testosterone gives you any advantage”. I have read the referenced study, and find it difficult tounderstand how such obfuscation did pass back in the day the quality filters to be assumed in a peer reviewed journal. Just take a trip to any neighborhood gym (or check what the WADA is finding in any doped athlete) to see to what extent the most knowledgeable coaches and practitioners buy it. It is not, for sure, estrogens what they may consider injecting, but testosterone (with a smattering of growth hormone). And the reason is not that hard to fathom: testosterone allows you to develop bigger and stronger muscles, and those muscles make you more powerfil (able to move more weight in less time). In 99% of sports the more powerful athlete has an almost insurmountable advantage over the competition. Exactly like the one Miss Semenya has over her female competitors.

    So even if it is not Caster Semenya’s fault to have been cursed (blessed?) by nature with a physiological advantage that makes her (because she has chosen to present herself as a woman, as she is of course in her full right to do, although given her genetic makeup it may be more descriptively correct to refer to her as a “him”) unbeatable in the women’s category, the CAS made the right decision banning her from competing in women’s sport. If she loves competing, she can do so against men (that would be, by the way, the same result if the author’s preferred solution were implemented).

    All I can agree with the author is, given the potentially deleterious effects on her health of taking medication to reduce her abnormally (for a woman) T-levels, I think that optoin should be banned. Not just for reasons having to do with the athlete’s health (if it is potentially bad, and thus banned, to resort to external testosterone increases, it seems equally bad to resort to external testosterone decreases). Also, from a fairness perspective, Ms. semenya could spend the whole year training with no medication, having her baseline T-levels at a much higher concentration than her opponents, building more muscle and more cardiovascular capacity, which would still serve her in competition time, even if during the race she had managed to reduce her T-levels to the desired figure.

  8. This is really interesting and a good read. One thing I’m not sure about though is really what it means to be male in terms of “perceived identity”. What precisely is it that they are perceiving? It isn’t their biological sex (either of the first two definitions), since by hypothesis this can differ to their perceived identity. So what is it?

    I can think of a few possibilities. Perhaps there are various attributes typically associated with men (e.g. liking football and beer) and they have many of those attributes. But then it seems like the word ‘male’ is inappropriate – the person is just ‘masculine’. So perhaps instead the perception is “I ought to have male sex organs”. It’s not clear then what the ‘ought’ really is doing – presumably the person hasn’t been wronged by anyone in being born without male sex organs, so perhaps it’s more like “the world would be better if I had male sex organs”. But that doesn’t seem to constitute gender either – maybe the world would be better if you were young again, but that doesn’t actually make you young. An adjacent option is to cast it as desire: “I wish I had male sex organs”. But again it seems like this doesn’t define gender anymore than wishing to be young again actually makes you young.

    So I am left perplexed, but feeling like I’m missing something obvious. I am very grateful for any pointers.

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