The fight for gender equality in sport continues


Deputy Sport Editor, Lucy Wilde, reflects on the continuing gender inequalities of sport, specifically with the case of Caster Semenya

Article Image

Image by Citizen59,

By Lucy Wilde

Just over a year ago now, Deputy Editor, Annabel Mulliner, wrote a comment piece exploring the debate around transgender women in sport, and suggested that there needed to be a rethinking of how transgender women are perceived, and consequently treated.

In line with this, Annabel outlined one specific case which remains prominent, concerning the on-going gender inequality in sport. This being Caster Semenya,  a 30 year old Olympic 800m champion. She has naturally higher levels of testosterone than other women. This has led to her temporary suspension from competing against other females within the 400m to a mile distance range, and prevented her from defending her Olympic 800m title in Doha in 2019.

In September last year she lost an appeal to Switzerland’s Federal Supreme Court, which would have allowed her to continue competing in her specialised distance. Following this verdict, it has recently been revealed that she will continue her fight, by appealing to the European Court of Human Rights.

For Semenya to be allowed to compete in any middle distance between 400m and a mile, she would be required to take testosterone reducing drugs to ensure her levels were in line with World Athletics Differences in Sexual Development regulations.

World Athletics stand in solidarity with Switzerland’s decision and have voiced their support for the “upholding of DSD regulations as a legitimate and proportionate means of protecting the right of all female athletes to participate in sport on fair and meaningful terms.”

While it seems appropriate to recognise the central importance of fairness in sport, it remains to be suggested that Semenya’s case highlights an arguably flawed system.

Considering the high-profile nature of her case, many may have been fooled into thinking this is a ‘one-off’ incidence where biology has placed athletes, through no fault of their own, at an unfair advantage.

This is not the case. Celebrated US swimmer Michael Phelps, for example, has disproportionately long arms, lower levels of lactic acid build-up, and overly lax, flexible joints - all of these natural genetic differences undoubtedly give Phelps an advantage over his competitors.

Yet he has been praised for his biological strengths, while Semenya has been condemned for her “genetic abnormalities.”

These cases seem to highlight the existence of a sexist double standard in which athletes with other natural genetic advantages are treated differently to Semeya.

To ask the question as to why this is, is complex without a doubt. Yet one explanation might be to call into question the influence of athletics as a sport which has historically segregated men and women. Has Semenya been limited as a way to protect the athletic gender binary?

Ultimately, Semenya and Phelps are no different in the sense that they both have attributes that help them succeed over their competitors.

But in Phelps’s case, his low production of lactic acid is seen as a positive because it does not threaten the gender binary of competitive sport. Semenya’s case however, with hormones and gender at its core, is seen as being unfair because she challenges what are considered to be the natural boundaries of female abilities.

The verdict, and consequent media coverage, of the upcoming European Court of Appeal may reveal more about Semenya’s case and the ideology which underpins decision-making in the sports industry. But it remains worth considering how revealing the different treatments of genetic-variations are, of social and culturally ingrained attitudes to gender and identity.