By Ishan Dasgupta

Caster Semenya, former world champion sprinter, was recently named to the initial Olympic team for South Africa. Her journey to this position, however, was anything but usual.


Although Semenya’s winning time in the 2009 World Championships was enough to earn her gold, it was not a result that should have raised suspicion of unfair advantages or use of performance enhancing drugs. Rather, her “manly” physique and complaints from her fellow competitors set into motion a lengthy gender verification process that the IAAF said it was “obliged” to conduct. After months of public humiliation and scrutiny, Semenya was cleared to return to competition, but the controversy was just getting started.


While Semenya was able to avoid a permanent ban and return to her sport, the circumstances of her situation sent both the popular press and academics into a tizzy. Countless articles were published both defending and questioning Semenya’s right to compete with women. Some criticized the IAFF for conducting the test in the first place, while others pointed out the difficulties inherent in making such decisions involving intersex athletes.


Her circumstances apparently became so groundbreaking that the IAFF changed their gender verification policy just to address her case. Their decision was to not limit competitors based on often-inappropriate conceptions of gender and sex, but rather on the level of androgens, specifically testosterone, produced by the woman’s body (a decision that actually favored and allowed for Semenya to compete).


This seems like a reasonable limitation that is based on the objective measurement of a hormone rather than human bias right?


Wrong, at least according to a Stanford bioethicist and her peers in their recent paper criticizing the IAFF’s androgen exclusion criteria. Katrina Karkazis argues that this policy is wrong for three major reasons: (1) the underlying assumption that testosterone is responsible for what makes an athlete athletic is false; (2) the policymaking process that arrived at this criteria was established by individuals not well qualified to make the decision in the first place; and (3) that this new policy makes it very difficult to achieve fairness and equality for female athletes.


Without going too deeply into the specifics of Karkazis et. al’s arguments, I will say that, for the most part, I whole-heartedly agree with their claims and the evidence they use to support them. That does not, however, preclude me from arguing  (as I did with coauthor Dan O’Connor in a commentary on Karkazis’ article) that the reality of elite sports is no longer about fair play and the display of natural gifts and hard work—it is about entertainment derived from competition, pure and simple.


Under this conception of elite sport, it is hard to see why it matters that the androgen exclusion criteria might be unfair to some people. The true nature of elite sport makes it so participation is not a right, but a privilege of those best able to follow the wholly-arbitrary rules that delimit the competition-ensuring parameters of the game. Rules and regulations in sport are constantly changed based on seemingly arbitrary reasons—sometimes to maintain fairness while other times to increase attendance.


Even in instances where the changes are made under the guise of equality and safety the underlying motivation is often to increase competition. Take restrictor plates in NASCAR that make it so cars can only hit a certain maximum speed. The rules were made to increase the competitiveness of the race and allow fans of different teams to have the ability to cheer on their driver, and not have races determined solely by those teams able to afford the best equipment.


Another example can be seen in the IAFF’s inclusion criteria for the men’s 10,000 meters. In 2011, at least 15 of the 20 top times for the 10,000 meters were by Kenyan athletes. The regulations, however, state that only three athletes from a country plus a possible wild card can compete in the World Championships. Thus, by simply being Kenyan almost a dozen individuals were kept from the World Championships even though their times were much better than athletes from other nations. The point here being that nationalistic interest in the World Championships would be greatly diminished for anyone who is not Kenyan or an avid runner, and therefore the rules are made in such a way as so the most audience members can enjoy and be entertained by the event.


A final example can be seen in the size of tennis balls. Over time different balls have been used for different surfaces—a slightly larger tennis ball is used on faster surfaces like hard courts in order so the game may be slowed down and made more exciting through lengthy rallies and closer points. This is entirely unfair to the dominant serve and volleyers of the 90s such as Pete Sampras or Greg Rusedski, but is also a direct reaction to such players. The ATP realized that the lay tennis fan was more intrigued by longer points, and at a disadvantage to big servers moved to using slower balls on faster surfaces. In fact, there are now three types of balls to counteract the power games of many of the world’s best tennis players.


The aforementioned rule changes and policies may seem unfair and tempt one to think that the world of elite sport is based solely on the entertainment value we as an audience derive from the athletes being able to follow completely arbitrary rules. Karkazis et al. clearly argue against the arbitrariness of the androgen exclusion criteria and succeed in making a valid claim that works in the world outside of elite sport. What they fail to see, however, is that elite sport has long left fairness and equality behind in exchange for television ratings and sponsors. If this sounds exploitative and suggests that entertainment is valued over the rights of the individual athletes, then welcome to elite competitive sport.



~ Ishan Dasgupta, B.A., is a research program coordinator at the Johns Hopkins Berman Institute of Bioethics. He is interested in the enhancement of human (and animal) traits and the implications this has for society

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