Janice Forsyth is an associate professor, school of kinesiology, University of Western Ontario; and former director of the school's International Centre for Olympic Studies.
The issue of sex-verification in elite sport has reached a crescendo at the Summer Olympics, with the sports world seemingly fixated on one athlete: South Africa's Caster Semenya.
Ms. Semenya was shoved into the centre of controversy in 2009 after her victory in the women's 800-metre race at the world championships. Allegations from other competitors that she was not quite female enough, combined with sexist media coverage, emboldened the International Amateur Athletics Federation (IAAF) to conduct biological and psychological tests on her to determine if she is indeed female. So began her journey through hell.
Her journey continues. She is still a focal point in a controversy that won't go away and that reaches back to the 1930s, when visual sex-verification was conducted by the IAAF on female athletes whose sex and gender had been called into question. This long history has since been mapped onto Ms. Semenya's sporting experience – literally onto her body. So much so that she has become the representative symbol for debates about sex-verification.
Symbols aren't human, of course. They're markers that signify something else, much like how a rose signifies love. In this case, however, groups are competing to secure dominant definitions about how we should understand sex and gender in sports. Her body and her performance provide a political arena that will define discussions in the days, weeks, and years ahead.
Ms. Semenya (who won her first heat on Wednesday in Rio, qualifying for the 800m on Thursday) is only one in a long line of female athletes who have been subjected to sex verification. Add up all of the girls and women who have competed in international sport since the mid-1960s, when formal testing became official policy and practice, especially in IAAF-sanctioned competitions (the worst offender for sex-verification among the international sport federations), and we get a sense of just how larger this problem is. Focusing on a single athlete like Ms. Semenya, even with the intent of wanting to challenge the negative discourses that surround her, is a distraction that benefits policy makers in institutional sports.
Finding justice for one person, while crucial and important, does little to resolve the systemic issue that led to the problem in the first place. Justice for Ms. Semenya is not the same as dismantling the sex-verification system; justice might result in an incremental policy change, but it will not bring an end to the policy itself.
One of the reasons why it's so difficult to dismantle the system is that debates about sex verification are still framed in terms of so-called fairness ascertained by so-called scientific means – in particular, through measurements of testosterone and its presumed link to performance enhancement, biological sex, and gender.
Our lens needs to shift to see sex verification as a matter of human rights and health equity, especially in the case of transgender athletes whose experiences have been sidelined with the focus on Ms. Semenya and hyperandrogenism. More science cannot be the answer, because it's part of the problem.
Even when sex verification is acknowledged as being terribly invasive for girls and women, too often the discussion slips right back into debates about fairness and the scientific means to secure it. Visual exams (genital inspections), unnecessary surgeries, hormone suppression, or psychological interventions re-emerge as mere sporting matters, not as the human rights violations that they are. The violence inherent in the system becomes a mere footnote on the way to a fairer system, better science ostensibly leading the way.
What justification can possibly be used to keep this system intact? Sports authorities and even some researchers are blinded by their devotion to what they perceive as the "fairness" inherent in sport, in particular in track and field. Until the sex-verification system is dismantled, no female athlete is safe. Certainly not Caster Semenya, whom we have made the symbol of this sordid system.