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When the Nuance Doesn't Fit the Narrative

Joe Ranvestel

Posted on June 6, 2019 22:16

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In the increasingly controversial Olympic arena, you may have heard of the athlete Caster Semenya, the women's track and field athlete who may need to, per IAAF regulations, take hormone therapy to reduce her abnormally high testosterone levels. But there's some nuance you might not have seen so far.

From high school to professional sports, there has been some debate centered around the gender-based advantages certain transgender individuals may have in competition. But one curious case is centered around Caster Semenya, the 2016 Olympic champion in the 800 meter running event. In Semenya's case, the highest governing body for international sports ruled that Semenya, and similarly situated athletes, will have to undergo some form of hormone therapy to reduce their abnormally high levels of testosterone. The decision has received attention and backlash across several mainstream media sources, but none of the major news sources have provided a key insight into the Semenya case. Caster Semenya has XY chromosomes.

Semenya fits into the rare category of "intersex" individuals, who exhibit both female and male characteristics. Unlike transgender individuals, who may personally identify with one gender over another, an intersex person will physically exhibit both male and female characteristics. Usually an intersex individual will lean more towards one physical characteristic grouping over another, and sort of go with whichever gender they most closely match. 

In most cases, intersex individuals can live as whichever gender they most closely resemble without much issue. But in athletics, things can get more complicated. Despite being a rare condition, it is suspected that all three of the 2016 Olympic medalists for the 800 meter race, including Semenya, are intersex. And, while these individuals are free to compete in the "open" or "men's" category without suppressing testosterone, the women's division is considered a protected division, and will require hormone suppression for individuals such as Semenya.

With a case like Semenya's, it's a tough call to determine if testosterone suppression is fair. These athletes don't quite seem to be comparable to some of the transgender cases we've heard of, who enjoy the benefits of male musculature, and subsequently dominate women's events. On the other hand, the advantage the male hormone provides is significant, and can be unfair for XX chromosomal female athletes. But the manner in which most news outlets have and will treat this case, as a genetic outlier the likes of Michael Phelps or Usain Bolt, is highly disingenuous. Whichever side you line up on, it's important you get the full story. 

Joe Ranvestel

Posted on June 6, 2019 22:16

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