And look at her they did. Track fans were quick to note that Semenya, with her beefy biceps and flat chest, doesn’t look like most women. The New Yorker called her “breathtakingly butch,” noting that, “Semenya became accustomed to visiting the bathroom with a member of a competing team so that they could look at her private parts and then get on with the race.”
Semenya was banned from competing for several months and underwent a gender test. In 2011, the IAAF capped the amount of testosterone female athletes could naturally possess and still compete with other women.
It’s unclear how much of an advantage testosterone gives women in running—or in anything else. Men are faster, on average, than women, but testosterone is not the only reason: Men also have more red blood cells and bigger hearts and lungs. Due in part to the lack of scientific clarity, in 2015 the Court of Arbitration for Sport suspended the IAAF’s testosterone regulations for two years.
That policy change allowed women like Semenya and Dutee Chand, an Indian runner who was at one point banned for her elevated testosterone levels, to compete in this year’s Olympics.
But as the New York Times reported, several female athletes had already gone to extreme lengths to comply with the testosterone rules:
At the London Olympics, four female athletes, all 18 to 21 years old and from rural areas of developing countries, were flagged for high levels of natural testosterone. Each of them subsequently had surgery to remove internal testes, which produce testosterone, as well as procedures that were not required for resuming competition: feminizing vaginoplasty, estrogen replacement therapy and a reduction in the size of the clitoris.
Chand, meanwhile, refused to take testosterone-reducing hormone drugs, telling officials, “I want to remain who I am.” (Chand performed poorly in her heat in Rio, further underscoring that testosterone isn’t exactly “jet fuel,” as Stanford University bioethicist Katrina Karkazis put it to the Times.)
Regardless of where sports’ governing bodies ultimately land on gender tests for female athletes—the IAAF has signaled it may challenge the Court of Arbitration’s decision—the controversy is unlikely to rest, since athletes are more likely to have intersex features than the general population. The growing societal acceptance of transgender athletes is also bound to complicate things for gender-sticklers.
The debate over Semenya, Chand, and others like them should make viewers question what, specifically, it is we want from Olympic events and athletes. In analyzing a related issue, Oscar Pistorius’ carbon-fiber legs, David Epstein quoted philosopher Bernard Suits in defining sports as “the voluntary acceptance of unnecessary obstacles.” Sports have rules because it’s just not fun to watch someone drive a Ford F-350 across the finish line, leaving a pack of honest runners in the dust. But if you’re born with a V8 engine in your bones, is it against the rules to use it?