When Caster Semenya won gold in the women’s 800 meter running event at the Rio Olympics it was neither her first triumph on the world stage nor her first time taking heat from those in the media. Each year critics decry the South African runner’s three-times-higher-than-usual testosterone levels--a natural-cheat, they say, pointing to her broad shoulders, bulky muscles, and impressive speed. The Atlantic staff writer Olga Khazan wrote about Semenya and the particular scrutiny applied to female athletes in a piece titled, “Why Hyper-Masculine Women Are Scary, but Fish-Like Men Aren't.” She speaks with Brooke about what the Semenya controversy reveals about what we want out of sports and about the questionable science used to define femininity.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: When it comes to sports and gender, or politics and gender or work and gender, health, anything and gender, discussion soon devolves into a churning or a burning funk. Olympics coverage was quickly called out for some egregiously unmindful commentary, like when a commentator observed that the US Women's Gymnastic Team, joyfully huddling after their spectacular qualifying round, quote, “might as well be standing in the middle of a mall” or when NBC’s Dan Hicks focused on the husband after the triumph of his multiple Gold- and Silver-winning record-breaking wife.
DAN HICKS: And there’s the guy responsible for turning Katinka Hosszu, his wife, into a whole different swimmer.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And take beach volleyball, please! Moving on, let’s consider the South African Gold medalist runner Caster Semenya who, under previous rules, would have been barred from competition because her body produces unusually high levels of testosterone, seen by many as a kind of jet fuel and unfair advantage in the women's games. And, forgive me, but this is where the soft rubber of gender hits the hard road of sports.
Writing in The Atlantic, Olga Khazan noted that sports have rules because it’s just not fun to watch someone drive a Ford F- 350 across the finish line, leaving a pack of honest runners in the dust. But if you’re born, she asks, with a V8 engine in your bones, is it against the rules to use it? Olga, welcome to the show.
OLGA KHAZAN: Thanks so much for having me.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You write that what’s at stake here are the ideals of integrity and athletic righteousness central to Olympic competition. How do you apply those things to Semenya’s presence at the Games?
OLGA KHAZAN: Well, part of the point of the Olympics is to preserve integrity. That's why we don't allow doping. We see it as unfair because it gives people an advantage that they didn't actually have to work for and weren't born with. But I do think that people who are born with certain features that make them more likely to succeed at certain sports, we should be not as judgmental about those things.
And I also think that in other domains of life, people who are atypical when it comes to gender are not usually advantaged. You don't usually hear about how great life is for transgender people. So I wonder if it's wise to start discriminating against athletes who aren’t typical when it comes to their appearance on the gender spectrum.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Malcolm Gladwell, in a very un-ambivalent [LAUGHS] interview in The New Yorker, didn’t think that Semenya should compete in the Olympics, not because he thinks it's okay to draw those kinds of lines between men and women in real life but because the Olympics aren’t real life. Gladwell quotes Physiologist Ross Tucker who, like the Olympics Committee, sees women as a protected category because of the powerful effects of testosterone. They just weren’t going to win at so many events, if they were going to compete against men.
OLGA KHAZAN: I agree that women are a protected class, or should be considered one, but the problem is that we don't usually use testosterone as a cutoff in defining who we consider female or not in everyday life. And just an example of that is that 5 to 10 percent of women have polycystic ovarian syndrome, which can raise their testosterone levels. But looking at those women, you wouldn't say, oh, they don't qualify as women, they’re this other thing because they have this somewhat common condition. I think they actually picked testosterone because the history of telling between male and female athletes is sort of checkered. [LAUGHS]
Originally, they had officials literally just looking at people's genitals. Then they had cheek swabs, looking for Y chromosomes, and people who had Y chromosomes would be barred from competition. But then that caused an outcry. So then they were like, well, what's left? Oh, I guess testosterone is another thing that men have more of and women have less of. There are a lot of differences between men and women.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [AUDIBLE BREATH] So they don't have any real clear way to draw that line. I guess the question remains, even if they did, should we draw it?
OLGA KHAZAN: So is the question, should there be two separate categories, in general?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: This goes back to one of the very first things you ask in your article: What do we want the Olympics and our athletes to be about, and what do we want to watch on our TV sets? You have to make a choice, and Semenya’s kind of a place to make it. You give her the freedom to be who she is in the Games the way that you would, in the best of all possible worlds, or you define the Games as a completely different world.
OLGA KHAZAN: Right, we have to decide. And, by that, I mean all fans of the Olympics or fans of athletics have to decide whether we want to see the most stereotypically feminine-looking woman who's fastest at running win or if we want to see the fastest person who identifies as female, which would be Caster Semenya?
I was talking with a women's advocate last night and he really comes down hard on the fact that whatever you identify as, that's what you run as. So, if you identify as female, you run with the women. So far, I, I don’t think we've seen too many men who are posing as women in order to unfairly game the Olympics.
So I think that's a fair standard. Will it mean that fewer stereotypically feminine-looking athletes are meddling? Possibly.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Why do you think this has been such a contentious issue, without resolution for so long? The IAAF, the track and field governing association, first subjected Semenya to gender testing back in 2009, and even though the real Games are over, it looks like this discussion’s going to continue for, I don’t know, years!
OLGA KHAZAN: Yeah, I mean, this has been a contentious issue for a really long time because we don't have a good way of differentiating between the two genders biologically and definitively. And also, we just don't know how much of an advantage testosterone is or whether men are faster than women for reasons unrelated to testosterone or in addition to testosterone. So those are sort of the two scientific reasons why it's so thorny.
And then I also think people want to see a certain thing in these races, and I think for a lot of people it's still not totally satisfying to see Caster Semenya win.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Olga, thank you very much.
OLGA KHAZAN: Thanks for having me.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Olga Khazan is a staff writer for The Atlantic, whose recent piece is called, “Why Hyper-Masculine Women are Scary but Fish-Like Men Aren’t.”
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BOB GARFIELD: That’s it for this week’s show. On The Media is produced by Meara Sharma, Alana Casanova-Burgess and Jesse Brenneman. We had more help from Micah Loewinger and Sara Qari. And our show was edited – by Brooke. Our techni –
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