Entering the Rio Olympics, two stories will likely dominate the conversation around track and field. The first, obviously, is the doping stories that have long been a part of any conversation we’ve had to have about elite running in the last 30 years or so. Especially with the IAAF sanctions against entire nations, most notably Russia, and the bust of Jama Aden’s hotel room in Spain last month, this issue will surely get plenty of airplay.
But, when the women’s 800m takes the track, doping scandals will become secondary to conversations about gender and hyperandrogenism. The three top runners in the field—Caster Semenya, Francine Niyonsaba, and Margaret Wambui—all facing various degrees of scrutiny regarding their hormonal makeup, some will question--and the television crew will almost certainly question—the legitimacy of the competition that will unfold in the event.
In anticipation of that latter conversation, Jeff and I took to an online chatting platform to gather our thoughts on the matter. What follows is a (slightly edited) transcript of discussion, which took place the night before the Monaco Diamond League meet that featured all three of the athletes under scrutiny in this regard.
Jeff: The women's 800m especially is nuts. No dibaba really brings me down some though. It'd be good to see where [Semenya] stands fitness wise with all that's happening.
Women 800 is the greatest of all time, right? Never before three women as fast in one race
Eric: Some of the commentary on this is really pissing me off. Running 1:57 does not = hypoandrogenism
Jeff: [This is all] so dumb and so quick to throw out accusations
Eric: I mean, I have no idea what I want to think about Semenya. My gut is that I'm 100% cool with the current system.
Jeff: That's where I think I'm at right now. It's hard to start making rules
Eric: You're more qualified than me [as a Biologist], so tell me if I'm wrong, but it seems that, almost by definition, women who are successful in athletics have higher testosterone levels than their peers. It's a question of where you draw the line, but I'm not entirely comfortable drawing that line.
Jeff: More or less. How do we determine what the cut off is? Some men have 7x higher Testosterone than the average man. Should they be in a different category? Once you draw a line you begin to cut at the heart of sport.
Eric: Yeah and that's not even a conversation. There's no way Alan Webb's testosterone wasn't through the roof. You see how early he went bald?
Jeff: Exactly so this whole ruling about Testosterone/Estrogen ratios is just bogus. How do you draw lines like that? These athletes are inherently the edge of human biochemistry. If they weren't they wouldn't be great athletes. So a cap is just placing an artificial limit on performance. Of course it isn't fair. It isn't fair that Lynsey Sharp can run 1:59 as a woman. It's a different kind of unfair from Semenya but they're both biologically natural. So why is one "bad" and the other accepted?
Eric: And what's the alternative? Making a third category for Semenya, Wambui, and Niyonsaba? There aren't enough atheletes to populate that. And again, you have to draw a ton of arbitrary lines. That opens the conversation of where female ends and male begins as well, or, I guess, whhere this third category ends. My liberal arts education tells me that it's all arbitrary—even the line between Emma Coburn and Evan Jager, but we'd be silly to seriously worry about that.
Jeff: Yeah I can't agree more. It all is arbitrary but it at least feels more concrete and deeply rooted to make a divide between men and women. Even that may be arbitrary but well defined.
Eric: The distinction based on reproductive organs seems at least more intuitive and it's worked fine up to this point.
Jeff: These few athletes create a huge complication.
Eric: If, in a decade or so, we have an entire Olympic field of hyperandrogenous women then we talk about it, but i feel we're reacting too strongly to a single (or small group) of outliers.
Jeff: I think we will have a few of these athletes every now and again. For whatever reason, likely socioeconomic forces, we are really seeing the emergence of this now. I mean, never before have athletes of this nature been so accepted (I say that relatively) and so enabled to compete globally. But I don't think that means these superwomen are on the rise. We might have a Semenya of every era now. And at least for now they're women to me and deserve to compete as such.
I would probably feel cheated if I were a 1:58 woman though.
Eric: Yeah. I totally sympathize with Shannon Rowbury or whatever. Imagine being a women forced to guard Brittany Griner. That would suck and would feel unfair, but Asbel Kiprop is similarly unfair, as was peak Bekele or Lebron James or Clayton Kershaw. The athletes at the extremes are freaks.
Jeff: And they all definitely have some genetic feature that makes them so damn good, but even if we knew it no one would call it unfair.
Eric: But, I also don't care about doping, so maybe I'm way off on all this.
Jeff: Interesting. I differ there.
Eric: I like seeing competition and amazing shit
Jeff: Yeah I still love to watch dibaba crush it
Eric: Lagat may be doped to the gills, but that 5k was so good
Jeff: [Dibaba] is still a workhorse
Eric: If you assume everyone dopes, it doesn't matter. The people doping have already been selected as the best. So it's just the same group of people competing on a higher plane. It doesn't change the fundamental nature of the sport or what makes it entertaining
Jeff: Also it's a kind of competition to cheat the system
Eric: How different is it from flopping in basketball or whatever shit goes on under water in water polo?
The conversation was truncated due to bedtimes, but, in short, Jeff and I are mostly on the same page: Semenya and other hyperandrogenous women should be allowed to compete in the Olympics and other international competitions. Professional atheletics inherently are contested by individuals at the boundaries of human anatomy, genetics, and physiology. Semenya is one case that has risen to prominence, but this is far from a problem that impacts the entire nature of the sport at this stage. As such, it feels to both of us a bit hasty and reactionary to completely re-conceptualize how we define gender in track and field on the basis of a small handful of athletes.
None of this is to dismiss the possibility that we are witnessing the beginning of a huge transformation in women’s athletics, but it’s nothing more than a slight possibility at this point. To delve deep into the fluidity of gender and sexuality and define hard lines of demarcation seems premature at this stage. It might turn out that, in a decade or so, hyperandrogenism defines the totality of women’s athletics. At that time, it would certainly be appropriate to work carefully to establish formal hormonal definitions of “man” and “woman,” but, that time is not yet here. Until that time, let Semenya compete and wow us with her transcendent ability.