Press "Enter" to skip to content

Track athlete impacts binary world of sports

In today’s social and political atmosphere, sex and gender have become hot topic issues. Gay marriage and the opportunity to transition one’s gender ensue intense dialogue and disagreement. While many transgender activists work to find a place in their preferred gender identity’s sports category, one gender identity has been relatively overlooked—intersex people.

According to the official definition from the  United Nation’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, intersex people “do not fit the typical definitions for male or female bodies.” 

One such person is Caster Semenya, a South African runner who is most known for competing in the women’s 800-meter event. Semenya has remained undefeated in this event since 2015 and has won two gold medals at the Olympics for the 800 meter. She was born with hyperandrogenism, where a female has high levels of androgens, such as testosterone, and she was raised as a female. Semenya also has XY chromosomes, a chromosomal pattern typically ascribed to men. 

In June, the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) ruled that female athletes with testosterone levels over 5 nmol/liter (moles of nitrogen/liters) would not be allowed to compete unless the athlete undergoes hormone treatment six months before the event to have their testosterone levels under the limit.

After Semenya appealed the IAAF’s decision, the Switzerland Supreme Court upheld the association’s decision, effectively banning the athlete from defending her title in the 2019 World Championships. Since the ruling, Semenya and her lawyers have worked to overturn the decision and advocate for female athletes who do not fit into the typical binary of gender. 

“I am a woman, and I am a world-class athlete. The IAAF will not drug me or stop me from being who I am,” Semenya stated.

The IAAF asserted that women with high levels of testosterone were given an unfair advantage in events between the 400 meter to the mile run because of a combination of speed and endurance, according to the New York Times.

“In relation to athletics, testosterone in males is responsible for the increased muscle mass and bone density,” said Dr. Celestino Velásquez, assistant professor of biology at ORU.

Today, testosterone remains the hormone that determines whether female athletes may compete. The IAAF’s ruling and Semenya’s response will have a lasting impact both on how intersex athletes can compete in sports and where they fit in a binary world.