Ethics Alarms first mentioned female runner Caster Semenya in this essay , when the international sports community was debating the South African track champion’s fitness for competition. Caster, depending on who you believe, is either a woman, intersex, a woman with freakishly high levels of testosterone in her body, or a man who identifies as a woman. What is undeniable is that she is faster than most women, and maybe all of them, and her unique physical make-up, whatever you want to call it, gives her an advantage. Since the last Olympics, Caster has been forced to take drugs that inhibited her body’s production of testosterone.Then, in July 2015 , the Switzerland-based Court of Arbitration for Sport overturned the 2011 IAAF regulations that restricted testosterone levels in female athletes. They also suspended hyperandrogenism regulations for two years. Now Semenya will be able to compete as she is naturally, and because she will, she is widely expected to smoke the competition.
Is it fair to let her run? Is it fair not to let her run? After this year of controversy and confusion over gender, with boys and men “identifying as women” and transgender discrimination laws roiling the culture wars, this is a perfect time for an intersex champion. Then, presumably, all hell will break loose. A sports scientist tells The Guardian,
“I’m actually dreading the Olympics. People only want to hear a good story so when Semenya wins gold the South African media will go crazy. If she breaks the world record, which I think she will, it’ll be even crazier. You can lie and say: ‘Happy days. Let’s celebrate our golden girl’ – which the politicians and media want. Or you can be honest and principled and say: ‘Actually, there are many things we need to address.’ That’s very unpopular”
Society and sports have reached the point the ethical solution is obvious and unavoidable, and, unfortunately, brutal. If society is accepting the fact that a binary gender distribution is a myth, and there may be seven, ten, or dozens of gender variations along a spectrum, then integrity and consistency—and fairness—demands that gender distinctions in sport be eliminated as arbitrary.
Let all genders compete equally in all sports, individual and team both. It is too bad that many women athletes will not be able to compete at a high level with men, who have natural advantages in strength and size, but nonathletic, short, weak boys and men have had to face that same disadvantage for eons. Women can try to close the gap in biology through training, dedication, practice and innovation, just as lesser athletes have bested more naturally gifted one since sports began. Some of them will. Is separate inherently unequal, or isn’t it? It is. The Supreme Court has never made a wiser or more profound statement. Gender-isolated sports were always an implicit societal statement that women could not compete with men, that they were the fair sex, the weaker sex. Women have fought to eliminate that assumption. Gender-segregated sports are an archaic remnant of the attitude feminism has successfully persuaded us was unethical. They have to go.
It will be ironic if the end result of women’s rights will be to eliminate many of their opportunities to excel at sports, and tragic, in a Greek sort of way. But when a woman’s natural hormone levels are ordered to be artificially reduced to eliminate her “advantage,” everyone needs to stop, take stock, and be honest. Wilt Chamberlain was a freak: a basketball player who was both taller than almost everyone but also stronger. Of course he set the all-time single game scoring record (100 points!) that still stands. Should he have been given some kind of handicap? Forced to play on his knees, perhaps? Similarly, Babe Ruth was obviously some kind of mutant. In 1920 when he hit 54 homers, it was more home runs than any other team in the American League hit that year. Did he have extra hormones? Martian DNA? Nobody’s ever fully explained Babe Ruth, just as nobody’s ever explained Shakespeare.
We can’t have special leagues and categories for however many gender categories science identifies and activists fight to have recognized, and there is no justification for creating artificial standards to eliminate outlier performers. The “solution” imposed on Caster Semenya—force her to take drugs that eliminate her natural advantage—is horrifying. How is this different from banging brilliant kids on the head until they have brain damage and no longer dominate their less gifted fellow students in school? What right do the sports czars have to declare an unprecedented, unique competitor unfit to compete because her, or his, unique qualities are advantageous? Why are so many woman condemning Caster as a cheat, when they should be defending her as a human being with as much right to compete as she is as anyone? Because she’ll win? Because it’s unfair that God, or random chance, or her own dedication rendered her better at her sport than anyone else?
Oh, I can answer that question. It’s always a shock when the natural progression of an ideological crusade takes a movement in a circle. Title IX, and the rise of women’s sports, was the result of concern over women having no avenue to pursue sports in college. There were men’s teams, but few and badly funded women’s teams. This was gender discrimination, a lack of equal opportunity. Since that law caused women’s sports, and female athletes, to proliferate—a good thing!—the far-sighted advocates of equality, many of them the same warriors who fought for Title IX—have apparently successfully lobbied for an elimination of hard gender distinctions or any separation of the sexes on the basis of modesty or, I have to say, common sense, in locker rooms, in bathrooms, everywhere but sports. If a boy tells his parents he is a girl, the Brownies have to let him in. A former make with Y chromosomes can compete in a female beauty competition.
At this point, efforts to qualify athletic competitors on the basis of gender are archaic and hypocritical, as well as impossible. There is only one way to be consistent and fair, at this point, and that is to open all sports competition and teams up to all genders, just as they are open to all races and physical types. Let the best athletes prevail.
Is that unfair to women? Why? Why is it any more unfair to them than to small, muscle-deficient men? If, in the interest of providing opportunities to play, various sports create divisions limited by height, weight or skill, that’s fine; just don’t be surprised if there aren’t a lot of endorsement contracts being offered, and the stands aren’t too full. This is what equality looks like, and what it should look like. Some people, scholars, students, workers, managers, job applicants, baseball players, tennis players and Olympic runners have more ability than others, and they will tend to succeed. Everyone should have an opportunity to compete, but fairness does not require that everyone have the same likelihood of winning.
Indeed, it requires the opposite.
Semenya forces feminists and gender equality advocates to face the ultimate contradiction in their quest. Does gender matter, or not? Is gender equality something they really seek, or are they going to be trapped in the same hypocrisy that racial equality advocates have become mired in: equality is desirable when it works to a group’s advantage, but intolerable when it does not?
Let the fastest runner win. That’s ethical. It does, however, make some long-standing myths untenable.