Tag Archives: International Association of Athletics Federations

Castor Semenya: Shameful Context of an Athlete’s Persecution

Laurie and Debbie say:

World Athletics remains committed to a centuries-old, white supremacist notion that defines “womanhood” in terms of the white, cisgendered female body, rendering everyone else, especially women of African descent, socially unacceptable aberrations. 

We have written about Castor Semenya several times, most recently here and here.  Semenya is an Olympic-class runner who has been continually harassed and demeaned by World Athletics (formerly the International Association of Athletics Federations, or IAAF), which is committed to the proposition that she’s not a real woman. Elizabeth Adetiba, writing at SB Nation, goes deep into the repulsive historical, contemporary social, and biological background to this substance-free “controversy.”

Read the whole article, don’t rely on our selections:

Based on the tones of disgust used to discuss her physicality, one might think that Semeya is the only runner to ever possess a body that so greatly differed from everyone else’s in the field. It seems the sports world has forgotten the peculiarities of Ira Murchison’s stocky, 5’4 frame, which earned him both the nickname “Human Sputnik” and an Olympic gold medal in the 4×100. Or that world record-holder Usain Bolt was taller with longer legs than any of his competitors.

Unlike those men, Semenya’s body is often deemed unwanted and out of place, most notoriously by her sport’s governing body.

Adetiba names two other contemporary African runners who are receiving similar treatment. Annet Negesa, from Uganda, was pushed into invasive surgery by World Athletics, and is suffering both physical and mental consequences. Adetiba goes on to cite the repugnant 19rh century “scientific” theories of Sir Albert Cook, who categorized Black women’s bodies by their “ape-like” features.

Before Cook, Sarah Baartman, more commonly known by her derogatory nickname “The Hottentot Venus,” encompassed Western society’s fixation on black women’s bodies. Captured and enslaved in what is now South Africa (Semenya’s home country), Baartman was brought to Europe in 1810 and exhibited in circuses and public squares until her death, when scientists assessed and dissected her elongated labia. That work was promoted as more evidence that black women’s so-called deficiencies made them less “womanly” than their white counterparts.

The impact of such ideas can still be seen today within the medical community through widespread diagnoses of “labial hypertrophy,” a medical term for an elongated labia, despite the fact it is not a major (nor, for the most part, even minor) health concern.

She goes on to discuss J. Phillippe Rushton’s spurious 1995 claims about Black people’s levels of testosterone. “Scientists have spent the last few decades refuting Rushton’s claims, and ironically fanning the flames of racial pseudoscience.”

Stepping back 150 years, Adetiba addresses other racial stereotypes:

In 1851, physician Samuel Cartwright wrote that, “It is not only in the skin that a difference of color exists between the negro and the white man, but in the membranes, the muscles, the tendons, and in all the fluids and secretions.” Cartwright’s work, which Hoberman claims was read widely by slaveholders, gave (pseudo-) scientific, biological justification for maintaining racial hierarchy and slavery, even as moral opposition grew in other parts of the United States. Implicit in Cartwright’s work was the idea that black men’s physicality is acceptable only when it can be manipulated for profit.

Today, we see Cartwright’s legacy in sports. Exceptional male bodies, often characterized by great strength and size, often inspire awe, and not ire, because for the last century sports institutions have forged and refined mechanisms to make money off of them. Strong women’s bodies, however, haven’t yet been nearly as profitable, and thus have been much more easily derided.

And she minces no words in making her key points:

World Athletics simply sees little use in acknowledging and developing female talent, particularly black female talent in the Global South. As exemplifiers of a particular strain of racialized thinking, those women, to them, are not “real women.” And when World Athletics refuses to elevate the athletic prowess of a black woman, within a body that defies centuries of white supremacist, colonial, gender-essentialist myths, it chooses, instead, to humiliate her on every level.

It is impossible to read this article in April 2020 without also thinking of the Black women being denied hospital care for coronavirus, of whom Rana Zoe Mungin is only one example.

We can only join Adetiba in our outrage.

… these women shouldn’t need to advocate for themselves. As society continues to confront the racial legacies of social institutions in other ways, sports organizations like World Athletics have a clear opportunity to address the harm done as a result of the implementation of racist, sexist ideas. No more hiding behind biased science, doctors, and metrics. Semenya, Niyonsaba, Negesa, and other African female athletes with hyperandrogenism need not alter or manipulate themselves to fit ideals of womanhood that were constructed explicitly around their exclusion. Their bodies are simply not the problem.

They never were.

Thanks to @LisaIronTongue on Twitter for the link. Follow Debbie on Twitter.


Olympics Gender Rules Reach New Lows


Caster Semenya

Debbie says:

Laurie and I have written about Caster Semenya, Dutee Chand, and Olympics gender testing, viewing the whole crooked game through a sexist lens … and there’s no doubt that the gender rules have a nasty sexist streak. But I didn’t realize before this month how racist these rules are as well.

The International Association of  Athletics Federation (IAAF), the organization that oversees track and field rules, has released its new guidelines. A visitor from another planet might wonder about the new rules, which set a maximum testosterone level for female athletes … only in “international track events from 400m to one mile.”

Lindsay Gibbs, writing at Think Progress, breaks it down:

If that selection of factors seems curiously specific to you, your suspicion is justified. Caster Semenya — a South African Olympic champion runner who has been subjected to rigorous sex testing and unfathomable levels of scrutiny about her body during her nine years in the international spotlight — just happens to compete in the 800m and 1500m events.

Make no mistake about it: This is a racist, sexist rule implemented by rich, white men solely to control the bodies of women, primarily women of color from the global south with intersex traits. It’s a rule propped up by ersatz science and logic that don’t pass even the most basic of inspections, and while the rule appears custom-made to derail Semenya’s dominance, its existence will damage the bodily autonomy of many others.

The IAAF has some studies — financed by *drum roll* itself — which purport to support these rules. And of course, they claim that the purpose is “to be fair.” Read Gibbs’ article for the statistical flaws. And then notice, again, that the events targeted are ones where Semenya (who is from South Africa) and Dutee Chand (who is from India) are standout competitors. Pole vault and hammer throw showed the highest performance advantage for competitors with higher testosterone levels, and are not included in the new regulations: We note that when dark-skinned women from the global south are not key competitors, somehow the sports don’t seem to need the same protections.

Dutee Chand

Jeré Longman also wrote a somewhat less political piece about this issue for the New York Times.

Many factors affect performance, and the I.A.A.F. has struggled to show conclusively that elevated testosterone provided women with more of a significant competitive edge than factors like nutrition, age, height, weight, access to coaching and training facilities, and other genetic and biological variations like oxygen-carrying capacity.

In a follow-up article today, Gibbs chronicles how South African professor Steve Cornelius, an expert on sports law, has left the IAAF over these issues. Cornelius,  who had only held his post a short time, resigned in an open letter to the IAAF, which says in part:

Sadly, I cannot in good conscience continue to associate myself with an organization which insists on ostracizing certain individuals, all of them female, for no reason other than being what they were born to be. The adoption of the new eligibility regulations for female classification is based on the same kind of ideology that has led to some of the worst injustices and atrocities in the history of our planet.

Neither Semenya nor Chand–nor probably dozens of other affected athletes–ever had a reason to question their gender, or identify as anything other than simply female–until the predominantly white male IAAF decided to be the gender police. Of course, they are not ashamed of themselves … but they should be. Along with Steve Cornelius, Lindsay Gibbs, and a host of other justice-minded people, I’m ashamed of them.

Thanks to Lisa Hirsch for the link to the New York Times article.