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Runner Excluded from Female Sports

By Lev Gordon-Feierabend

Caster Semanya is a female runner from South Africa. She has won three world championships and the 800 meter dash in the last two Olympics. Her entire career, starting from when she ran a world record time in 2009, has been marked by allegations that she was not in fact a woman. Although she was cleared in 2010 by the International Association of Athletic Federations (IAAF), a rule change in what qualifies women athletes as female made it so that Seamnya could no longer compete in the Olympics due to her testosterone levels. The option in a recent court ruling is either for her to take testosterone lowering pills with potentially harmful side effects or be banned from further competing in the Olympics.

This issue raised questions about what it means to be “woman enough” to participate as a female athlete  in the Olympics. Someone’s body, while having chromosomes associated with being female, could also contain hormones and produce other chemicals that can make the body look and function more like a “male”. The IAAF has struggled to clearly define which of these different bodies have an unfair advantage when participating in female sports. The newest metric, testosterone levels, has been criticized for unfairly targeting Semanya. Indeed, the testosterone metric only applies to 400, 800, and 1500 meter races, the three events that Semanya participates in. Further adding to the narrative that IAAF intentionally set the rules to try and undermine Semanya, is the fact that the study used to set the testosterone standard was funded by the IAAF.

A comparison that has been routinely made is of Semanya to Michael Phelps, the celebrated US Olympic athlete. Phelps was praised by the IAAF for his unique body, which included giant flipper-like feet, an extra-long wingspan, and a low amount of lactic acid. Semanya, on the other hand, is told that chemicals made by her body are an unfair advantage. Yet, in the face of this criticism, Semanya remains relatively unfazed. “I’m just going to enjoy my life and live it,” she said, “You come in front of me, I jump you. That’s how life is.”

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