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Olympics Win or lose, South Africa’s Caster Semenya prepares for controversy

South Africa's Caster Semenya competes in the women's 800m event at the Rome's Diamond League competition on June 2, 2016 at the Olympic Stadium in Rome.

TIZIANA FABI/AFP/Getty Images

Editor's note: Caster Semenya won her women's 800m qualifying heat Wednesday morning with a time of 1:59:31 and goes for gold in the finals tonight.

South Africa's Caster Semenya begins competing in the women's 800-metre qualifying rounds on Wednesday. There is widespread expectation the runner may win a gold medal and break the world record at this distance. Yet whether she wins or loses, there will be controversy: Ms. Semenya's performance will be seized on as evidence by one side or the other in an intensifying debate about gender and sport, and who gets to define the boundaries.

It has been four years since Ms. Semenya last caught world attention – with the silver medal she won in the 2012 Games in London, not long after she was cleared by track and field's governing body to run following a scandal over secret gender testing and leaked records. (The Russian athlete who won gold has since been revealed as a doper.) Views on gender identity have expanded remarkably rapidly in much of the world in those four years. They have not, however, broadened with the same speed within the International Olympic Committee; the IOC continues to base all its activities on a binary division of gender, with no room for the greys creeping in elsewhere.

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"This is the last bastion," Madeleine Pape says about the sport federation that decides who competes here. "They are differentiating, determining who are 'normal' women, and they make that distinction based on very gendered characteristics." Ms. Pape speaks about this with a certain authority: Back in 2009, when the Semenya controversy exploded, she was two lanes over on the track – running the 800 m for Australia at the world championship, and getting left in the dust like the rest of the field by the young athlete from South Africa.

At the time, Ms. Pape says, she was on the side of most of her fellow competitors, who felt the South African should not be there – convinced that, as she smashed the record times, she could not be "normal" and must be intersex, or have freakishly high levels of testosterone, or in some other way not "really" be a woman.

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The attention focused on how Ms. Semenya carried herself, Ms. Pape recalls – on how she wore full Lycra shorts, not the bikini bottoms favoured by most runners, and had sculpted biceps. She wasn't presenting herself in the ways that most female athletes – even fiercely strong ones such as Serena Williams – do, overtly signalling femininity with painted nails and long hair.

Ms. Pape was subsequently injured, left sport and moved into the world of academia, where she met transgender people and others who challenged her view of what makes a woman, and who gets to decide and police what is normal. Today, she is working on a doctorate in sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and her thinking evolved to the extent that she testified as a witness a year ago when a critical case – which cleared the way for Ms. Semenya to run in Rio – was heard before the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS), the athletic world's highest body, in Switzerland.

That case centred on Indian sprinter Dutee Chand, who had been told by the International Association of Athletics Federations that if she wished to compete as a woman, she must undergo medically unnecessary surgery or hormone treatment to lower her naturally occurring testosterone level, which, the IAAF said, gave her an unfair advantage. She was appealing a ban from sport that came about after she was subjected to "gender testing" by the Athletics Federation of India, without her knowledge or consent, after other competitors complained she did not look conventionally feminine.

In the court case, the IAAF argued that women who have "hyperandrogenism" – high levels of natural testosterone, because they are intersex or for some other reason – have an unfair advantage and must compete with men, not women, unless they surgically or medically lower their testosterone to within levels the IAAF accepts.

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Ms. Chand's lawyers (a pro bono team from Toronto) argued that there is no scientific evidence that high natural testosterone confers an advantage the way that taking synthetic testosterone does. There is no reason to think testosterone level has a more significant effect on performance than any other genetic difference such as arm length or height, they said, or that it outweighs the impact of differences in factors such as access to nutrition or coaching– all of which affect how levelness the playing field.

The court cautiously agreed, and told the IAAF (and the IOC, which said it would follow the ruling) to go get the evidence if it wanted to maintain the hyperandrogemism rule. In the meantime, the rule was suspended for two years – so Ms. Chand was cleared to run without having to alter her natural hormone levels, as was Ms. Semenya. And in Rio, for the first time since women began competing in the Olympics, female athletes have not had to undergo some kind of test to show that they meet the IOC's current definition of what makes a woman.

Many people in the sporting world decry this situation as fundamentally unfair. British marathon runner Paula Radcliffe, who holds the world record, testified in support of testosterone testing at the CAS, and said in a debate last month that the women's 800 m is "no longer sport" with Ms. Semenya running.

Ms. Semenya's critics – many of them coaches of athletes who must compete with her – point to a steady improvement in her race times in recent months to argue that she must have stopped lowering her natural testosterone after the Chand decision, and so her performances dramatically improved.

But Ms. Semenya has never spoken about her testosterone level (except to say that she was subject to "unwarranted and invasive scrutiny of the most intimate and private details of my being," violating her "dignity and privacy"). And the information about her having hyperandrogenism or possibly being intersex is all from unconfirmed medical records leaked from the IAAF to the media. There is no proof she was using any method to lower her natural testosterone, or has stopped using it, Ms. Pape says: Ms. Semenya may simply be faster, the way Simone Biles is a fantastically gifted gymnast of a kind never seen before.

"We assign enormous symbolic power to testosterone in modern society and particularly in the world of sport," Ms. Pape says. "Female athletes are ill-informed – we don't question what we're told, that it is the critical factor in shaping performance."

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The IOC has longed policed gender: The testing for hyperandrogenism (which can be triggered by a complaint from any other competitor) is the latest iteration of a practice that has included physical exams of women's genitalia, then testing of chromosomes, then genes and today focuses on testosterone, says Cassandra Wells, who is working on a doctorate at the University of British Columbia examining the history and sociology of sex testing in sport.

Gender testing began with a desire to keep men from sneaking into women's sports (no men have been caught doing that for nearly 100 years), but concern over fairness has crossed over into the discriminatory, Ms. Wells says. "The IOC is trying to create a level playing field for women, but they assume women are always going to be inferior to men," she says. "The IOC sees itself as the steward of potential of human physical culture – people in the Olympics are standard-bearers of that movement, so they want to select who they are, appropriately male or female athletes."

The IOC refused multiple requests to make any member of the committee or its staff available for an interview on this topic. The IOC has said that, under its rules of "fair play," any woman with natural testosterone levels above the limit it sets would be eligible to compete with men. "Yet supposedly this isn't gender verification – well, it's actually womanhood verification," Ms. Pape says. Male Olympians are not subject to gender verification, but researchers say it is reasonable to assume there is variation in their natural testosterone levels.

Under those same IOC rules, transgender people who have undergone sex reassignment are eligible to compete in the Olympics. Assumptions about female competitiveness and the role of testosterone also underlie these rules: Female-to-male transgender athletes face no restrictions on the assumption they will have less testosterone than men born biologically male, and so have no advantage. Male-to-female athletes are required to show they are suppressing their testosterone levels below the typical male range "to minimize any advantage in women's competition." No competing Olympian has yet come out as transgender.

Ms. Wells says the amount of attention on Ms. Semenya on Wednesday will depend on how she runs. "If she wins, it will launch a whole new conversation," she says. "And if she loses, then it will go away – because 'real women' won the race, and that was the concern."

It will go away until the next athlete whose gender identity or how they live it challenges the IOC definition, says swimmer Mark Tewksbury, a three-time Olympic medalist and activist for LGBT inclusion in sport. He isn't anticipating rapid change in the IOC view. "Sport leadership at the international level has a very difficult time with issues they can't control," he says.

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But the conversation on gender identity, including transgender athletes, is moving quickly, he says, and the IOC can't avoid it. "When I was an eight-year-old kid watching the Games in Montreal in 1976, the biggest star was Bruce Jenner; he was the icon of the '76 Games. How can you not deal with it when one of your Games' stars is Caitlyn Jenner?"

Mr. Tewksbury noted that the issue of homophobia in Russia came to a head with threats against LGBT athletes headed to Sochi to compete in the 2014 Winter Games. Non-discrimination based on sexual orientation was added to the Olympic Charter as a result. "And suddenly the IOC, in a very strange twist of fate, became an agent of change," he says. "Maybe at this juncture, with the world so much more aware of trans issues and challenges, sport could be in a position to force the issue to be dealt with. I would say reluctantly, because it was the same in Sochi, but out of that did come something good."

Ms. Pape says she expects the IOC is eventually going to be forced to reconfigure how it defines gender. "There's a really strong alliance between all the different gender justice movements – the transgender movement has a lot of momentum, and the intersex movement and the LGBT movement mutually support one another and, together, they're pushing us toward a different future of gender," she says. "Olympic sports and the IOC might be fighting, but they're fighting a losing battle."

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