Commentary | Gender equality finishes last at the Rio Olympics

The games are still an unsafe space for gender-nonconforming and trans athletes

TW: Cissexism, transphobia, discussion of gender binary, and trans/gender nonconforming-exclusionary language

In the binary world of the Olympic games, women’s rights have significantly improved since the games were first held in 1896. At its inception, the inclusion of women in the games was frowned upon by organisers, including founder Pierre de Coubertin. A report written in 1912 after the Stockholm games, and published with Coubertin’s support, read, ”An Olympiad with females would be impractical, uninteresting, unaesthetic and improper.”

Women first competed in the Olympics in 1900, making up 2.2 per cent of the total Olympian population. In 2016, 120 years later, the Rio Olympics featured the highest percentage of participation from women than ever before in Olympic history: about 45 per cent of competing athletes were women. But this cannot be taken as an indicator that the Olympics are truly working toward gender equality.

An recurring issue surrounding gender equality that has recently resurfaced  is the case of South African middle-distance runner Caster Semenya. Semenya, who won the gold medal in 800m running in Rio this year, has a condition known as hyperandrogenism, meaning her testosterone levels are naturally higher than what the International Association of Athletics Federations considers the norm for women. As a result of this, she has been continuously subjected to public scrutiny and an invasion of privacy, not only by Olympic officials and authority figures, but also by her fellow athletes and the world at large.

Since 2009, when she was first revealed to be hyperandrogenic following her success at the world championships in Berlin, Semenya’s status as a “real woman” has been investigated and questioned with complete disregard of her right to self-identify. Subsequently, her eligibility to participate in athletic events was put in jeopardy.

The IAAF and the International Olympic Commission (IOC) requested Semenya take a “gender verification test” – details regarding the nature of this test remain undisclosed. Following this, the IAAF and the IOC modified their policy on “gender verification”, which had beforehand been vague, to include limitations on testosterone levels for those competing in womens sports. As a result, Semenya was banned from competition between November of 2009 and July of 2010.  

In 2015, the IAAF and IOC policies were overturned by the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) following an appeal by Dutee Chand, a sprinter from India who was also barred from competition in female athletic events due to hyperandrogenism. At the Rio Olympics, with the ban no longer in place, Semenya was able to live up to her potential and became a gold medalist. However, not everyone was happy with her win and the intrusive discussion surrounding her gender was reopened.

Regardless of the outcome of the IAAF and IOC deliberations over acceptable testosterone levels in women athletes, Semenya is a woman. However, institutional policies refused to allow Semenya the right to self-determination and identification. To say that she could not compete in women’s events because her testosterone levels were too high was to directly tell her, “no, you are not a woman.” If IAAF and IOC policies dictate that a female-identifying person with high testosterone levels is not a woman, they are immediately taking away the right to self-identification from trans women, gender nonconforming women and femmes, or any women with high testosterone levels that would potentially want to compete in sports.

The IAAF should be more concerned with elite athletes consciously and willingly taking drugs to alter their performance than with marginalising an individual who has no control over their physiology. Trying to alter someone’s body to conform to what they deem is a level of testosterone acceptable for women to have is outrageous. The Russian team faced no consequences for their substance usage, but a woman simply trying to compete to the best of her abilities was scrutinised, publicly shamed in the media for her appearance and hormone levels, and had her identity questioned for over five years.

It seems wholly unfair to discriminate against someone like Semenya, who has trained hard for her medals, on the basis that her testosterone levels give her some sort of “advantage” – an argument that has been disproved by geneticists and Athletic authorities within the past year. To claim that keeping Semenya out of the game was done in order to “protect” her competitors  from an athlete with an “unfair advantage” is both paternalistic and discriminatory. Moreover, it is simply a show of bad sportspersonship.