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.
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.