Do Michael Phelps and Caster Semenya both share an unfair competitive advantage?

Opinions in Dialogue is an informal conversation on a topical opinions article published outside of The Peak

Photo courtesy of Steven Lelham via Unsplash

By: Ana Staskevich, Staff Writer; Alison Wick, Arts Editor
Introduced and compiled by: Nicole Magas, Opinions Editor

In a May 2 Washington Post article titled “We celebrated Michael Phelps’s genetic differences. Why punish Caster Semenya for hers?” Monica Hesse criticizes the International Association of Athletics Federation’s (IAAF) decision to ban Caster Semenya from competitive running. As the ban resulted from Semenya’s naturally high testosterone levels, Hesse argues that the ruling creates a sexist double standard that is not applied to other athletes with naturally occurring genetic advantages.

Semenya, a cisgender woman, has been the target of multiple investigations that question her womanhood at the chemical level. The Peak’s Arts Editor Alison Wick and Staff Writer Ana Staskevich discuss the nuances of this issue, and counter some of the arguments in support of it.

Ana: In the case of Michael Phelps and Caster Semenya, I think we are dealing with similar if not identical situations. Phelps has many biological advantages as an athlete: long arms, less lactic acid, more flexible joints — a combination that some of his competitors lack. Semenya, on the other hand, produces a higher level of testosterone, which some believe serves as a biological advantage in sporting performance. I don’t think one should be celebrated and the other condemned (as in the case of Semanya) as they are both naturally occurring.

Ali: I agree. Considering them as different cases is rooted in transphobia and also some racism. However, it’s clear that there is a central difference between them, namely gender identity. In Semenya’s case, the biological advantages — or abnormalities, as they have also been called — are about whether or not she is “woman enough” to compete against other women. Testosterone is considered to be the male sex hormone and estrogen the female sex hormone. In this case, the root of the argument is not so much about competitive advantage, but rather the arbitrary gender divide in sports.

Ana: While I understand that gender differences are important to talk about in sports, I think these situations are rooted primarily in the biological differences that serve as advantages to the athletes. Like you, I believe this issue has been wrongfully dealt with by the IAAF. However, this all falls back on how so called “abnormalities” help the sporting performances of physically gifted athletes. Semenya and Phelps are no different in the sense that they both have attributes that help them succeed over their competitors. Perhaps athletes like Usain Bolt have some quirk in their bodies that make them better than others. I don’t think Phelps’s and Semenya’s identities matter here . . . it is more so what they bring to the table in the athletic world.

Ali: I guess the way I am looking at this is more from the perspective of why they are seen as different — why it’s so wrong to have elevated testosterone if you’re a woman, but if you’re a man with abnormally long arms, it’s fine. While the case is ostensibly about their advantages, the underlying fears actually make it about policing a rigid, binary boundary between males and females. In an op-ed for the LA Times, Ruth Wood writes, “The purported goal of gender verification was to prevent males from posing as females in competition. There has been no recorded instance of normal men passing themselves off as women. And yet sports federations continue to target women who do not conform to feminine norms.”

This is similar to trans-exclusionary “feminists” who feel that trans* women are just men trying to infiltrate women’s only spaces. These arguments that are really only based in transphobia and fear rather than actual fact. This is compounded in sports where gender essentialism is a core part of the culture. But does this “necessary” gender division justify the discrimination? One could make the argument that the IAAF decision creates something of a hormone ceiling for female athletes. No one ever asks men to supply proof of “normal” testosterone levels, because the fact is that culturally we expect men to naturally be “better” than women. And we base this on entirely arbitrary values of what makes a “normal” man and woman, such as testosterone levels.

Ana: I can understand your argument. I think sports are very rigid in how they define and measure gender. It’s unfortunate that sports distinguish between male and female performance, as categories that must be kept separate. A lot of it is arbitrary, of course. I can see where you’re coming from in how men are seen as “naturally superior” in their physical performance. Semenya is now being crucified because she exhibits these so-called masculine attributes in her genetic makeup. There is a double standard in Phelps being praised for his abilities. By competing as male in male athletics, he is afforded unlimited capacity to succeed.

However, I still feel that applying gender to the argument only reinforces the idea that there is something fundamentally different between men and women when it comes to athletic ability. The fact that men and women both produce estrogen and testosterone naturally shoots out of the water the idea that hormones are a definitive or accurate measure of sex. We should be aiming to decentre gender from sports altogether and focus on celebrating all kinds of natural differences that produce extraordinary athletic ability.

Ali: I guess that’s where it gets complicated in the world of sports. Gender is one of the most fundamental structural divisions for athletics, thus in any case about athletic advantage gender is inherently involved. So for many people, to consider Semenya’s higher testosterone levels a fair advantage would be to question to entire gender binary of sports period. I would basically say what I said in the beginning, that these cases are in fact different because of the genders of the two athletes and also the nature of the hormones. In Phelps’s case, his low production of lactic acid is seen as a positive because it doesn’t threaten the gender binary of sports competition. Semenya, on the other hand, whose case is about a gendered hormone, is seen as being unfair because she challenges what are considered the natural abilities for women. And that’s not even beginning to talk about the fact that she is a Black woman.

Ana: Race is absolutely a big part of this. In terms of your earlier points, I still see Semenya’s elevated testosterone as a case of physical advantage. I have heard people argue that Semenya’s testosterone is easier to quantify and “limit” as opposed to Phelps’s wingspan or his low lactic acid, but the reality is that it doesn’t matter . . .  nor does the gender binary in sports. Limiting them, regardless of the effort it takes to do so, is not relevant. We should instead see this as a case of similarities. Both athletes are physically gifted. We should treat them the same, rather than crucifying one and praising the other. What’s the point of doing a sport if you’re not any good at it? Are we just supposed to ignore our natural talents in life and not pursue things that come easier to us?

Ali: Yes, exactly! Limiting athletes because of their natural advantages would require officials to kneecap half of all professional athletes. My main point is that they have limited her in order to protect the athletic gender binary, because her case, while the same as Phelps’s in many ways, is more about what is fair to the other “female” athletes. It’s not about what is fair to her at all.

Closing thoughts: The case of Caster Semenya is fraught with several layers of gender discrimination, transphobia, and racism, all mixed up in an archaic sports culture that still treats men and women as fundamentally different creatures. Undoubtedly, Semenya has been prescribed unnecessary, invasive procedures in an incredibly personal aspect of her life, all to parse where she falls on an arbitrary divide between men and women. Semenya, like many other athletes, has been gifted with a naturally occurring advantage that helps her succeed. She is not a science experiment — she’s a superstar.