Semenya, Imali and women who run

Michael Onsando
14 May ,2019


“Two Kenyan sprinters have been dropped from the team for the IAAF World Relays championship in Japan this week, after blood tests showed high levels of testosterone, Athletics Kenya said Friday…  “We could not risk travelling with the two athletes after the recent IAAF ruling on the restriction of testosterone levels on female runners took effect on May 8,” Athletics Kenya (AK) director of competitions Paul Mutwii told AFP.”

In 2009 Caster Semenya won the world 800m gold in Berlin in 1 minute and 55.45 seconds and ever since the IAAF has been pondering a question that gender studies has been grappling with for a while – where does gender begin? Where does it end? Let’s get a few things out of the way before we begin. First of all it is oddly suspect that these questions are particularly raised with respect to black women though the muscly Jarmila Kratochvílová (to name but one) wasn’t tested in her time. Also, remember all the people saying Serena Williams is basically a man?

But that this is a specific and direct attack on black women isn’t necessarily what I want to focus on. I’m not even particularly interested in the fact that while South Africa stood with their champion we’re busy “not risking the travel.”

Perhaps it was inevitable that sport was where the gender debate would occur. For categories to exist there must be clear cut boundaries. This ends here, this begins here. Before we saw gender as fluid we were really depending on genitals to tell us who sits where. The only people who have known, for a long time, the fluidity of gender are the LGBTQI community. People who have never really felt comfortable in their category – choosing to identify as differently placed along the gender spectrum. This phrase “identify as” has been turned into a weapon of the right wing conservatives to trivialize identity politics as a feeling – an imposition. It has been used to reduce the entire movement down to people who are either childish or out to manipulate a situation to their advantage.

“For the first time, I encountered the vast literature written by advocates of women’s sport who oppose the exclusion of women athletes with naturally high testosterone for both scientific and ethical reasons: scientifically, because biological sex and athletic ability are both far too complex for scientists to reduce to measures of testosterone, and ethically, because these regulatory efforts have always been characterised by considerable harm to the women athletes singled out for testing.”

Which is why the positions are all out of wonk in this situation. We have, overwhelmingly, conservative people coming out in support of the judgement showing this as a victory for women’s sport (despite several sportswomen coming out against it). Meanwhile the liberal position seems to be “let her race!”

I’m not going to claim to know enough about the science of sex to understand how many testosterones it takes to make a man. And I’m not trying to conflate gender and sex rather I am trying to dance in the space where they are interlinked. How would we react to any of these athletes if they identified as male and perhaps made different decisions around their “difference?” We don’t know. Are there male athletes that will now be asked to compete with women cos of their competitive disadvantage in men’s sports? Are trans, gender inclusive Olympics about to become a thing?

“I am so happy the way God made me to be.”

  • Maximillia Imali, 400M record holder – dropped from squad

“…Cas(The Court of Arbitration for Sport) urged the IAAF to create a procedure where athletes should not be excluded as a ‘consequence of the natural and unaltered state of their body’”

I know the answer here is more complicated than ‘stick the outties in one place and the innies in another.” So I am not trying to prescribe solutions. The discussion on gender and sex is long and complicated yet also new to the public front. A lot of people are struggling with how to handle the new information, where to place it in their memory categories and how to properly pronoun people. What I hope, besides that Kenya could stand behind it’s athletes, is that maybe this opens up the conversation a step further – beyond Ze labeled bathrooms.

Spread the love
%d bloggers like this: