Since I am a runner (well, returning to running as my tendon heals), I pay some attention to news about the sport. One thing I like about the coverage is that it tends to involve less controversy and bad news than other sports. Of course, running is not free of such controversy as a recent incident attests.
Semenya, a South African runner, is currently the world’s champion in the women’s 800 meter race. The controversy is that it has apparently been claimed that she is not a woman. The basis of this is that her testosterone levels were tested at three times the normal level. She has also been under observation since her racing ability has made incredible advances in a relatively short time. Since natural improvements are generally gradual in nature, this raised suspicions.
One reply that has been given to the charge that “she is actually a he” is that Semenya certainly seems to be a female.
This sports controversy also raises a controversy over the nature of gender. Presumably Semenya appears to be a female (it has been implied that sort of check has been done). However, there are cases in which a person looks like a female yet is genetically male. This is complete androgen insensitivity syndrome and is more common than one might expect. Such people have higher testosterone levels than “normal” women because they have testes (albeit not descended). I must emphasize that I am not making any claims about Semenya, I am merely bringing this up for the sake of the discussion.
Since human societies are generally built around an obsession about gender identity and divisions, this syndrome does create some difficulties. If the syndrome is discovered when the child is young, there is the option of assigning a gender through the use of medical means (including surgery). In some cases, the procedure is delayed until the child can make his/her own decision.
Sports are, of course, not free from the gender obsession. Of course, the concern over gender can be seen as quite reasonable. After all, males have a general physical advantage over females and for sports to be fair, males should be distinguished from females. This seems to be morally on par with divisions based on age (like age groups in road races) and weight (like in boxing). However, if someone looks like a women yet has male genes (and the higher testosterone) then that person might be seen as having an unfair advantage over “normal” women. Of course, such a person might be at a disadvantage relative to “normal” male athletes.
One way to deal with this sort of concern would be to determine the degree to which a person with this syndrome has an advantage over “normal” woman in regards to athletic competition. If such an advantage exists and places the person into the male range, then it would seem to be unfair to allow the person to compete against “normal” women. Of course, if people are to be tested to determine how they fall on the competitive spectrum, then fairness would seem to require that all athletes be tested and grouped based on their capabilities rather than on gender. Of course, practical concerns (costs, for example) would make this sort of testing and sorting very unlikely. As such, the sorting of folks by gender is likely to remain the standard in sports. Of course, this approach is the cause of the difficulty in the matter at hand.
Because sorting is and will remain gender based, it seems most reasonable to allow a person with the syndrome to compete as the gender they have chosen (or been assigned). It is not a perfect solution, but seems to be the fairest approach. Naturally, the person would have to be “established” in the gender rather than simply deciding to be, for example, a woman for the purposes of competition after having lived as a male.
Of course, some “normal” women have naturally high levels of testosterone. This can presumably provide some women with an advantage over other women, but this would not be cheating. After all, some people are born with better lung capacity or more efficient muscles and this is not cheating.
It must be said, of course, that a person might also have unusual high levels of testosterone due to the use of synthetic testosterone as a steroid to increase athletic performance. If this is the case, then the ethics of the situation are quite clear-such cheating is morally unacceptable in sports.