The Testosterone Debate Won’t End with Caster Semenya
After two more star runners have been excluded by World Athletics’ policy, the governing body will have to reap what it has sown
It’s now official that Caster Semenya, the two-time defending Olympic champion in the women’s 800-meters, will not be taking part in the Tokyo Games this summer. Semenya, 30, was already prohibited from competing in her best event due to recent World Athletics regulations that prevent athletes with XY chromosomes and testosterone levels exceeding 5 nmol/L from competing in the women’s category in distances from the 400-meters up to and including the mile. World Athletics has argued that these are the distances where the advantage of having testosterone in the “male range” is most pronounced. (In 2019, Semenya brought a legal challenge against the policy to the Court of Arbitration for Sport, but the court ultimately ruled in favor of World Athletics.)
Since Semenya has been adamant that she will not artificially lower her testosterone, the only way for her to qualify for Tokyo was to achieve the Olympic standard in an event where the World Athletics rules don’t apply. She tried to move up to the 5,000-meters, but was ultimately not able to establish herself as an Olympic-caliber athlete in the new distance; her fastest time of 15:32, set at a meet in South Africa in late May, was still 22 seconds off the Olympic qualifying standard. When the qualifying window for Tokyo ended on June 29, several media outlets published articles that read like elegies on the competitive career of an athlete who embodied what is perhaps the greatest conundrum in contemporary sports.
“If the flame on Semenya’s Olympic career has been extinguished at age 30, her legacy will be important far beyond medals and fast times around a track,” The New York Times noted. “Her case, along with the separate issue of transgender athletes, provoked contentious scientific and ethical debate about who should be allowed to compete in women’s sports.”
From the perspective of World Athletics, the governing body with the unenviable job of having to define and enforce the parameters of who qualifies for the “female category,” there may be some hope that the post-Semenya era will turn the spotlight away from an issue that has been a continuous public relations fiasco for the organization. This, however, is not likely to happen. Although Semenya has said that World Athletics’ testosterone policy was a direct response to her success on the track, she has also repeatedly maintained that she wasn’t fighting it solely for herself, but also for other athletes who might find themselves in her position. (Notably, the two women who shared the podium with Semenya at the 2016 Olympics, Francine Niyonsaba of Burundi and Kenya’s Margaret Wambui, are also both ineligible to compete in Tokyo because of their natural testosterone levels.)
It’s only fitting, then, that in the same week that Semenya’s campaign to make it into this year’s Olympics came to an end, two more women who were leading contenders to make the podium in Tokyo were declared ineligible to compete in their best event because of World Athletics’ testosterone regulations.
On July 2, the Namibia National Olympic Committee (NNOC) posted a press release on its Facebook page, declaring that Christine Mboma and Beatrice Masilingi, the two teenage sensations who have respectively recorded the fastest and third-fastest times in the 400-meters this year, would not be racing the event in Tokyo on account of their “high natural testosterone level.” (Both women are still expected to compete in the 200-meters.) “It’s important to understand that both our athletes were not aware of this condition,” the press release read.
The letter was signed by NNOC president Abner Xoagub, who later called out World Athletics in the Namibian, Namibia’s largest daily newspaper, for withdrawing Mboma’s and Masilingi’s names from the Olympic 400-meters start lists—and therefore effectively making their case public—without first alerting the national committee. “Throughout our communication, we agreed that we will treat this with the respect and confidentiality it deserves because of its sensitivity, but World Athletics did not take that into consideration,” Xoagub said.
It’s understandable that Xoagub would want Mboma and Masilingi’s case to be handled with discretion. The problem, however, is that Mboma, who is 18, had already set a new world junior record in the 400-meters (48.54), by the time World Athletics was in a position to enforce its testosterone rule. An athlete of that caliber can’t really make a subtle exit from the stage of international competition. People are going to notice.
Regardless of what one thinks of World Athletics, it’s a safe bet that the organization does not relish disqualifying young women from competition, solely on the basis of their biology, after they have achieved remarkable results on the track. Critics of the testosterone regulations will correctly point out that the governing body brought this on themselves. Proponents of the policy, meanwhile, might argue that it would have been much easier for World Athletics to do nothing in response to a situation like what occurred at the 2016 Olympics in Rio, where the entire women’s 800-meter podium was swept by runners with so-called “differences in sex development” (DSD), but that failing to act would have been the greater injustice.
During the 2016 Olympics, the journalist and science writer (and Outside contributor) Christie Aschwanden published a piece for FiveThirtyEight.com that astutely relates this dilemma to the classic “Trolley Problem” in philosophy, which examines the implications of intervening in a situation to minimize harm. Is World Athletics obligated to protect the women’s category by creating a rule that would exclude DSD athletes, who make up a small minority of women in elite sport?
Aschwanden is unabashedly on Semenya’s side in this debate. She argues that regulations that exclude DSD athletes will also hurt female runners who don’t conform to conventional ideals of femininity. As she writes: “Pulling the lever in favor of testosterone testing sends the trolley down a track that will harm not only women with high testosterone levels, but also every other woman athlete who looks too ‘manly’ or otherwise does not conform to someone else’s notions of what a woman should be.”
Maybe. But a woman who looks “manly” and still has testosterone levels within the prescribed range would be allowed to compete and hence potentially be in a position to challenge stereotypes. Getting tested for testosterone to verify one’s gender might constitute a kind of harm in and of itself, but I’m not sure that abolishing the practice will shield women who don’t conform to someone else’s notions of femininity from criticism.
Perhaps the more fundamental question is whether the harm done to runners like Semenya and Mboma by excluding them is equivalent to the harm done to non-DSD athletes in a scenario where no testosterone limit exists—at least for those who have identified as female since birth. If cases like Mboma’s continue to arise, World Athletics might be forced to reconsider the question more closely than it wants to.