The Women’s 800m and the Issue of “Intersex” Athletes in Women’s Sports

Setting the Stage

The Women’s Olympic 800m was one of the most controversial events of the 2016 games.

Olympic 800mGold medalist Caster Semenya (and the other two medalists as well) is said to have an unfair advantage – she’s “intersex”. The following is out my element, but Semenya and supposedly the others have one of, if not all of, the following:

These cause significantly higher testosterone levels (~3x higher) than non-intersex women. Science has proven that testosterone is a huge difference maker in athletic performance.

Once aware how much higher T-levels these athletes have, the IAAF implemented a ban on woman athletes who’s T-levels were over a certain limit. However, in 2015, CAS (Court of Arbitration for Sport) overturned that ban.

The Question is this: Should athletes like Semenya be allowed to compete as “women”?


My Take

This article defending Semenya sums up most arguments that defend her. One line even says:

The idea that testosterone levels could constitute an unfair advantage in this climate is laughable., this climate being the fact that Caster was poor growing up in a developing country (South Africa).

That sentence is laughable. 99% of people defending Semenya are making this a social issue. This debate is NOT about discrimination and social injustice.

It doesn’t matter that Semenya is black or lesbian or from a poor country; Caster Semenya has a biological, scientifically proven advantage over her competitors. This fact is seemingly ignored by most articles defending her.

Is it a feel good story that someone could overcome adversity? Of course. But allowing intersex athletes to compete against non-intersex women significantly reduces the chances that any non-intersex woman will be competitive in a field of intersex athletes.

If the Olympic final in 2020 is 8 intersex athletes, do you think everyone will watch and say “Wow, it’s so great that these 8 competitors over-came such adversity” without logically thinking “Hmm, all 8 are intersex even though 1 in 15,000 are born with X condition. I wonder if they have an unfair advantage, and that they shouldn’t be competing against non-intersex women.” That’s the point we may get to if we continue down this road.

There’s no easy solution. Semenya and others didn’t choose their biological make-up, so it feels “wrong” to bar them from competing against other women. Do you force them to race against men? Do you create a third category? I don’t know. But Olympic competition isn’t a human right, and allowing them to compete against women is going to be the death of “women’s” track and field, if not all women’s sports. That may be dramatic, but I don’t think it’s far off the truth.

This is in no way an attack on Semenya and other intersex athletes. She’s done nothing wrong, and I don’t blame her at all for running in the Olympics. They deemed she was okay to do so. She’s faced adversity that we’ll never understand and is in a lose-lose situation. I give her a ton of credit for going through all of this.

But this is about setting a standard. This is about enforcing a level playing field for all of women’s sports. If natural biological increases in testosterone are allowed, why aren’t artificial ones? Why is testosterone a banned substance by the IAAF? Because it provides an unfair advantage. This is the same reason men and women don’t compete against each other.

It’s nothing personal. It’s nothing social. It’s everything about fairness.