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Olympic champion Caster Semenya's critics couch misogynoir in the language of 'equality'

Like a true champion, Semenya knows this fight is about more than herself or Olympic gold. It’s about women’s freedom to “run free” without artificial barriers impeding them.
South African Olympic champion Caster Semenya in Johannesburg on Aug. 14, 2019.Marco Longari / AFP via Getty Images

Black women’s excellence is continuously undermined in a world that refuses to even recognize their humanity. In the case of the South African runner Caster Semenya, the latest ruling on the legality of her body exemplifies how discrimination is codified in the very systems that should recognize bodily dignity and autonomy, and a black woman’s right to exist and run free.

There is a barbarism in the court’s demand that this 2-time Olympic gold medalist medically change her body — suppressing her natural testosterone levels — in order to compete.

On Tuesday, the Swiss Federal Tribunal ruled against Semenya, banning her from defending her 800-meter title in the Tokyo Olympic Games next summer. There is a barbarism in the court’s demand that this two-time Olympic gold medalist medically change her body — suppressing her natural testosterone levels — in order to compete. Semenya carries one X chromosome and one Y chromosome in each cell — the medical system has called this “46, XY,” a “disorder” of sexual development. For Semenya, this genetic variation has resulted in what the medical system, and now the Switzerland court, has deemed above average levels of testosterone in her body.

The tribunal ruled in favor of discriminatory rules of eligibility set by international track and field's governing body, World Athletics, that state that Semenya must submit herself to medical alteration for a minimum of six months before being permitted to compete on an international level — otherwise, she is barred from competition.

Both the World Medical Association and the Office of the United Nations Commissioner for Human Rights have voiced their support for Semenya, calling the regulation discriminatory and harmful.

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Legislated, medicalized, regulated — these various forms of systemized control are nothing short of abuse and absolutely impugn Semenya’s “human dignity,” contrary to the Swiss court’s gaslighting claim that its ruling did not undermine the runner’s “guarantee of human dignity.”

This governing body, along with World Athletics, couch their misogynoir in liberal feminist language of “equality” and “fairness” — because pitting women against women is one proven patriarchal strategy. “These kind of people should not run with us,” Italian runner Elisa Cusma, said after coming in sixth in a 2009 World Athletics semifinal heat that Semenya won. “For me, she is not a woman. She is a man.”

Or, as Russia’s Mariya Savinova, who was stripped of her 2012 Olympic gold medal after she tested positive for doping (the gold was then awarded to the runner-up — Semenya), once said of her rival, “Just look at her.”

Australia's Madeleine Pape initially jumped on the racist bandwagon after the 2009 race. But, after beginning her doctoral studies in sociology, she reconsidered her original thinking, noting, in an interview with NPR, the racial bias in doubting the gender of women of color, and adding that “women’s sport will benefit from Semenya being a part of it, and we have room to include her here."

In testimony cited by both the Swiss tribunal and the Court of Arbitration for Sport, expert witness and former All-American elite runner (notably in the 800 meters) Doriane Lambelet Coleman claimed that “sex equality in competitive sport is a legitimate goal.” (“Sex equality” is baffling, just even considering how hormones fluctuate and vary among women; so, how is “equality” possible?)

World Athletics applauded the tribunal's ruling in a statement rife with this misogynistic language of “equality” and “protecting women.”

“For the last five years World Athletics (formerly IAAF) has fought for and defended equal rights and opportunities for all women and girls in our sport today and in the future. We therefore welcome today’s decision by the Swiss Federal Tribunal (SFT) to uphold our DSD Regulations as a legitimate and proportionate means of protecting the right of all female athletes to participate in our sport on fair and meaningful terms.”

It continues:

“The Swiss Federal Tribunal acknowledged that innate characteristics can distort the fairness of competitions, noted that in sport several categories (such as weight categories) have been created based on biometric data, and confirmed that ‘It is above all up to the sports federations to determine to what extent a particular physical advantage is likely to distort competition and, if necessary, to introduce legally admissible eligibility rules to remedy this state of affairs.’”

The language of “fairness” is stunning since competition is not fair, and fairness is not the objective of any competition. (Why, for example, was Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps not barred from competition for his various “physical advantages,” including his disproportionate wingspan, double-jointedness, and low lactic-acid levels?)

The language of “fairness” is stunning since competition is not fair, and that fairness is not the objective of any competition.

Yet, this language of equality is weaponized time and again to discriminate against women (think, anti-abortionists’ argument that a fetus’ life is equal to that of woman’s). Specifically, it is used to oppress, subjugate and control women’s bodies.

Considering the organization’s policing and penalization of Semenya’s body, and of champion Indian sprinter Dutee Chand before her, it is impossible to not read between the lines of World Athletics’ language: that the men in charge will protect the white women with what are deemed to be “normal” testosterone levels (“normal” for women, according to standards made by men, means less than men) from women of color, especially “gender variant” women of color.

When women — especially Black women — are too good, when their excellence threatens men, these men will do anything to steal that power, including positioning themselves as the saviors of “equal rights” and “fairness” for white women. This language is about dehumanizing black women in order to delegitimize their excellence, no matter their testosterone levels — if the decades of racist dog-whistling against Serena William’s excellence isn’t a firm case-in-point.

Semenya, for the record, fully understood the implications of the ruling and the governing bodies’ intentions.

“I am very disappointed by this ruling,” she said in a statement reported by her lawyers, “but refuse to let World Athletics drug me or stop me from being who I am. Excluding female athletes or endangering our health solely because of our natural abilities puts World Athletics on the wrong side of history. I will continue to fight for the human rights of female athletes, both on the track and off the track, until we can all run free the way we were born. I know what is right and will do all I can to protect basic human rights, for young girls everywhere.”

Like a true champion, Semenya knows this fight is about more than herself or Olympic gold. It’s about freedom — women’s freedom to run, to “run free” without artificial barriers impeding them.