Integrity of women’s sports to be challenged

17 May 2019

Carys Moseley comments on a legal challenge to the International Association of Athletics Federations’ new rules on testosterone levels for female runners.

Athletics South Africa is to appeal a recent ruling by the Court of Appeal for Sport against Caster Semenya, the 800 meters women’s Olympic champion, which required athletes with Disorders of Sexual Development (also called Differences of Sexual Development or ‘intersex’ conditions) to reduce their testosterone levels. Caster Semenya had lost an appeal against the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) over its new rules on testosterone levels for female runners. The Court of Appeal for Sport said that these rules were discriminatory but that this was “necessary, reasonable and proportionate” to protect female sports competitors.

Why is the press hiding the fact that Semenya is a genetic male?

A few days after news of the ruling broke, the IAAF said that Semenya would be allowed to compete in any men’s competitions. Significantly, this was not reported in any of the main UK press outlets – a problem given that the real question here is the genetic sex of the athlete. Caster Semenya first came to international attention in 2009 for winning the women’s 800 metres in the World Championships. News of a gender test, made due to suspicions about unusually high levels of testosterone, was leaked to the press. There has been a running battle over Semenya’s status as a female athlete between the IAAF and the South African government ever since.

Not one of the mainstream press outlets that covered this story in the UK has revealed the fact that Semenya is in fact genetically male. She was born with a Disorder of Sexual Development called Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome (AIS). People born with AIS are chromosomally male (46, XY) but do not develop all the normal male sexual characteristics. Semenya is thought to have internalised testes and not to have a womb.

The press release from the Court of Arbitration in Sport specifically states that:

“The DSD covered by the Regulations are limited to athletes with ‘46 XY DSD’ – i.e. conditions where the affected individual has XY chromosomes.”

What are the changes to testosterone rules?

The new testosterone rules will apply to all women taking part in track events from 400 meters to the mile. They will have to keep their testosterone levels below a certain amount for a minimum of six months before the competition under question. Certain events, however, are not included, those being 100 metres, 200 metres, 100 metre hurdles, races which are more than a mile long, and field events.

Female athletes affected must take medication for six months before they can compete, and then maintain a lower testosterone level. The rules were intended to be brought in on 1 November 2018, but the legal challenge from Semenya and Athletics South Africa caused that to be delayed until 26 March this year. The United Nations Human Rights Council has called the plans “unnecessary, harmful and humiliating” and South Africa’s sports minister has gone as far as calling them a “human rights violation”. The Court of Arbitration for Sport acknowledged that there are serious concerns about how those involved in athletics might put the new testosterone rules into practice.

Why this ruling matters

This ruling is an important milestone in protecting sport for biological women at a time when its integrity is also being threatened from another angle by transgender activism. Unfortunately, most press reportage on the Semenya case does not delve very deeply into this.

It is particularly significant that the government of South Africa supported Semenya. Earlier this year it was pushing at the United Nations for a definition of women and girls in sports with ‘differences in sexual development’. This would go further than Disorders of Sexual Development, which are congenital disorders, to include male-to-female transgenders who aren’t biologically female at all. The strategy used was to modify the terminology to speak of ‘women and girls with Differences of Sexual Development’. Fortunately, many UN member states pushed back against this. However, there is still a need to be vigilant in the face of recurring attempts of this kind.

Why protect women’s sports?

Women’s sports have been under threat for some time due to transgender and intersex activism undermining the biological definition of being female. Women and girls competing against people who are not biologically female are at an unfair disadvantage, as they cannot realistically ever win. Competition is central to sports and comes in different forms. Most running events involve competition between individuals, the exception being relay racing. Team sports are typically sex-segregated to allow fair competition. Sports requiring judgment by non-participating individuals, such as gymnastics, are also sex-segregated. All of this is because, on average, men and women differ in levels of strength and speed.

A balance has to be maintained in sports between the aim of winning a competition and the value of participation for different reasons, such as pursuit of fitness and health as well as enjoyment of the activity, developing a rapport with other participants and representing a particular group as an individual or part of a team. All of this matters both to participants and also to supporters and wider audiences.

This is not the first time that the integrity of women’s sports has been called into question. Back in 2015, eight members of the Iranian women’s football team were suspected of being male. As a result, the entire national squad and leading women’s league players were required to undergo sex testing. ‘Sex-change’ surgery was permitted after the Iranian Revolution in 1979 by Ayatollah Khomeini. Western liberals and feminists have often considered this to be a means of concealing homosexuality in men especially. However, the antics of the national football team suggest other motives, including the use of genetic male advantage in women’s sports, as well as keeping female sports competitors away from men’s sight in competitions with non-Muslim countries, in compliance with Islamic Sharia law.

More recently there have been disputes over male-to-female transgender competitors in women’s sports having an unfair advantage. For example Canadian transgender cyclist Rachel MacKinnon won the UCI Masters Track World Championship last October. MacKinnon considers the view that only biological women should be allowed to compete in women’s sports to be ‘transphobic’.

The need to uphold lifelong health and well-being

Those deeply invested in women’s sports often worry that women’s sports get less media coverage – and thus less public support – than men’s sports. Anything that undermines the identity of women’s sports as being by and for women is likely to further threaten public support. There is also a declining morale among women and girls in sport due to the fact that competitors with an unfair male advantage are being allowed to encroach on their territory.

Over the last few months this has led to several prominent sportswomen speaking out and defending the idea that women’s sports should only be open to biological women and girls. Marathon world record holder Paula Radcliffe has suggested that rules on the participation of male-to-female transgender competitors might need to be tightened up to protect the integrity of women’s sports. Radcliffe, along with athlete Dame Kelly Holmes and swimming champion Sharron Davies were reported last March as intending to write to the International Olympics Committee to ask for more scientific research on the benefits of being transgender athletes competing in women’s sports.

It is also relevant to consider this debate in terms of health and well-being. Fitness experts argue that women and girls need to take care to exercise regularly for specific purposes, including offsetting the greater likelihood of osteoporosis, which is more likely after the menopause. As women tend to live longer than men, exercise and sports among women can be considered important for health and well-being into old age.

Why is this debate so difficult?

The entire debate on women’s sports can feel difficult for a rather different reason however, namely that it is focused heavily on professional sports. As most people don’t participate at that level, it is tempting to think that it does not matter, or that we are dealing with a luxury. The reality is rather different, as professional sportspeople are often involved in sports and fitness education at all levels of society. They set the tone and worldview for how amateur sports are handled, and also have a say in how sports are taught in the education system and in the wider community.

Press coverage of the ruling against Caster Semenya makes for strange reading. Often the discussion has centred around fairness for Semenya, with the insinuation that those who want to protect female-only competition are being difficult or unpleasant. This sentimentalises the debate to an unacceptable degree. Sports is not just about the self-expression of the individual; it is a fundamentally social matter, linked to the flourishing of society.

A Christian view of the controversy

The entire debate needs to be viewed by stepping back from the press coverage and the legal arguments. Christians have a grounding that is uniquely God-given here. Undoubtedly sports, particularly professional sports, can be an idol for many, reflecting the idolisation of the human body and competitiveness in a now godless western society. The temptation is to avoid the issue and consider it strictly irrelevant to most people.

Historically, Christians have drawn on Paul’s allusion to sports in his first letter to the church in Corinth to illustrate the Christian pursuit of holiness.

“Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.”

The context of this is the divisions and disputes in the church in Corinth, whereby believers had fallen into patterns of seeking power and worldly wisdom under a Christian guise. In the first chapter of his letter to that church, Paul quotes Isaiah saying that God will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and speaks of the need to take human weakness seriously.

Semenya’s lawyers think her testosterone advantage should be celebrated. The fact that she has undeniable male characteristics is downplayed. The definition of who is a woman or a man here should be understood as the ‘wisdom’ of the worldly-wise. Uncritical celebration of strength is not a Christian virtue.

Professional sport is obviously particularly vulnerable to this form of idolatry. It lies at the heart of the battle raging over who is a woman in sports, as well as wider society, and is also at the root of the bad sportsmanship which lies at the heart of competing with an unfair advantage. Christians and others involved in sports should support the ruling of the Court of Appeal in Sport and see further than the sentimental and individualistic press reportage on this case. Even in the midst of hostile press coverage we can see a natural witness to the righteousness of God at work.

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