Penny Hopkins laments the hysteria that surrounds Caster Semenya and Dutee Chand on questions of gender
The pressure has been building over the last few months. We are now at fever pitch as a number of people with no useful qualifications feel they are able to pontificate on just what makes a woman, a woman, and therefore, “acceptable” as an Olympian.
The hysteria – and I use that word deliberately – in recent years has centred around the condition of hyperandrogenism – naturally occurring, but higher than usual levels of testosterone in the body.
“Paula Radcliffe insists the rights of Olympic 800m gold medal favourite Caster Semenya need to be balanced with other athletes.”
Caster Semenya, the most high profile athlete with this condition is again under scrutiny as she goes for gold in the 800m. She has by far the fastest time in the world this year, a new personal best of 1:55:33.
As it stands, the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) guidelines on hyperandrogenism are still under examination. These guidelines were suspended for two years in 2015 after doubts were raised as to whether increased levels of testosterone actually create better athletic performance.
However, that does not stop people from making wild assumptions in a way that we do not find elsewhere. Does anyone comment that 6’8” basketball players have an unfair advantage in their sport?
My heart sank as I read this headline in Britain’s Daily Mail, “Paula Radcliffe insists the rights of Olympic 800m gold medal favourite Caster Semenya need to be balanced with other athletes.”
First, I’m not entirely sure what that means. Is she questioning the validity of rulings already made? Radcliffe continues: “…Semenya’s inclusion could spark a recruitment drive from nations in areas where hyperandrogegism is more common.”
Dutee Chand is the other high profile ‘victim’ when it comes to gender identity.
Secondly, is this truly a probability? Is it even possible? This is where speculation tips into hysteria. Radcliffe goes on to equate hyperandrogenism with drug-taking, suggesting that as Russia allegedly went to the length of state sponsored drug-taking, so other countries, where the condition is more common, may deliberately take these girls en masse and train them to be athletes.
But the worst part, which I believe is inexcusable if she actually said it, is that Radcliffe believes sport will be devalued if Caster Semenya wins gold in the 800m at the Rio Olympics.
How can the prospect of Semenya breaking the world record at the height of her athletic career devalue anything?
Indian sprinter Dutee Chand is the other high profile ‘victim’ when it comes to gender identity. In 2014, Chand was pulled from India’s Commonwealth Games team in Glasgow just two weeks before it was due to start. She had failed a hormone test.
Chand took her case to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) and won. With the demise of the guidelines and, therefore the test, she has now been cleared to race, but not before being offered hormone therapy and genital surgery, both of which she rejected. Chand has now qualified for the 100m in Rio, the first Indian woman to do so for 36 years.
We have (apparently) come a long way since the times when gender testing involved athletes dropping their underwear. But with stories emerging such as Chand’s, it is difficult not to be concerned. Any surgery offered, which could include clitoral reduction or removal of internal testes, is based on the theory that higher levels of testosterone or androgens improve athletic performance, and as this is yet to be proven, shouldn’t this “therapy,” the so-called “normalisation” of female genitalia, be prohibited?
Meanwhile the suspicion, comment and unqualified ignorance continues. And if you thought the headlines surrounding hyperandrogenism were outrageous, you should see what the “experts” have to say about transgender athletes.
I’ll certainly be watching Semenya and Chand with interest, cheering them on as they strain every sinew in competition. And if they win, I’ll cheer. And if they don’t, I’ll show sympathy – as I would with any other woman competing.
Penny Hopkins is a freelance journalist and writer from the UK, specialising in women’s sport.