16 May 2018

Africa: Female Athletes Considered Cheats for What Their Bodies Do Naturally

Are the new International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF's) "Female Classification" regulations targeting Africans specifically? asks Enock Muchinjo

Two weeks ago, the International Association of Athletics Federation (IAAF) made changes to the Eligibility Regulations for Female Classification (Athletics with Differences of Sexual Development). This has divided opinion in Africa, with people questioning who the regulations are really targeting.

Many people on the continent believe that the new regulations are targeting Africans, particularly South Africa's double Olympic champion in the women's 800m, Caster Semenya. She also attained a double-gold haul at the recent Gold Coast Commonwealth Games with victories in the 800m and 1500m.

The new rules fall just short of saying Semenya and her ilk are cheats because their bodies produce higher levels of testosterone than what is considered normal in women.

Just when you thought Semenya was getting into her groove to dominate the middle distances and give the world of athletics a new poster girl, the IAAF decides to punish those who have a biological make-up that is not of their own making. This is the same IAAF that has failed to deal decisively with users of drugs and performance-enhancers.

Read: Female runners must prove they are the right kind of woman to compete

Many from the Western world never accepted Semenya as an athletics sensation ever since she burst onto the scene as a timid 18-year-old, winning gold at the World Championships in Berlin eight years ago. On what was supposed to be the biggest night of her career, she had to undergo the humiliating experience of gender testing

In 2016, when Semenya won gold in the 800m, Great Britain's Lyndsey Sharp, who ended sixth, asked the authorities in a post-race interview to look into "the Semenya issue" because she felt the winner had an unfair advantage. Funny that the world took seriously an athlete who had come sixth. It would have made sense if she had come in second, but a distant sixth! It is scandalous.

Maria Mutola during 2008 IAAF World Indoor Championships in Valencia. Photo: Wiki commons

People have long accepted that countries like Kenya and Ethiopia will produce many great middle-distance and long-distance athletes. Since Mozambican Maria Mutola captured the world's attention with her record-breaking feats as a middle-and long-distance runner, the world has been waiting for another athlete in this category to emerge from non-traditional strongholds.

The athletics gods then gave us Semenya - but she is not "woman enough" for those in international athletics' corridors of power.

Why the focus on middle-distance races?

It is easy to see why so many believe that these regulations were put in place to stop the middle-distance superstar from dominating her signature events - those are the only events that will be affected. What the IAAF is telling Semenya is this: If you really think you are "man enough", you can go and run in the 5000m category, which is not affected by the new regulations.

While Semenya is the athlete on everyone's lips, there are others who are also set to be affected by these new rules when they come into effect: Francine Niyonsaba of Burundi and Kenyan Margaret Wambui are also believed to be hyperandrogenic.

Hyperandrogenism is a condition that results in a raised testosterone level in some women, causing virilisation (physical features and chemical levels that are associated with masculinity). Some believe that these women are able to run faster because of this.

Semenya spent 11 months on the sidelines after her gender-testing debacle. She could only resume her career after taking testosterone-suppressing medication, which made her run slower.

Read: Twitter reacts to Lynsey Sharp's controversial comment after Semenya's victory

Dutee Chand won the bronze medal in 22nd Asian Athletics Championships in Bhubaneswar. Photo: Wiki commons

The lawyers of Indian sprinter Dutee Chand successfully challenged rules forcing female athletes to take testosterone-suppressing medication. Chand's lawyers had claimed it was sexist to force female athletes to take testosterone-suppressing medication when men's levels were not even recorded.

Fast forward to 2018: What was deemed to be sexist in 2015 is still being practised!

Who, one may well ask, is advising the IAAF?

By November 2018 this case will have been before the Court of Arbitration for Sport, who is being asked to deliberate on the same matter that they considered three years ago.

On the other hand, those who are in support of the IAAF's new policies want people to discuss the merits and the demerits of these new policies, not the individuals who will be affected. They argue that the new regulations are bigger than individuals.

IAAF president Sebastian Coe argues that their new rules are driven by research.

"As the international federation for our sport, we have a responsibility to ensure a level playing field for athletes. Like many other sports we choose to have two classifications for our competition - men's events and women's events," Coe said.

"This means we need to be clear about the competition criteria for these two categories. Our evidence and data show that testosterone, either naturally produced or artificially inserted into the body, provides significant performance advantages in female athletes."

One of the key voices that has emerged is that of respected academic Steve Cornelius, who made headlines when he resigned from the IAAF's disciplinary tribunal, after condemning the female classification rules.

"On deep moral grounds, I cannot see myself being part of a system in which I may be called upon to apply regulations which I deem to be fundamentally flawed and most likely unlawful in various jurisdictions around the globe," said Cornelius.

"It would also be unethical for me to devote time and energy to expose the warped ideology behind the new regulations while serving on the disciplinary tribunal."

It seems Cornelius is alone in this fight - a lone voice of reason.

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