RIO de JANEIRO — The Olympics seek to promote three key values: excellence, friendship and respect. It thus follows logically that the Olympic ideal seeks to realize the best in each of us on the grounds that doing so makes all of us, together, better.
Sport has rules. These rules mean that a soccer game in Brussels is the same as a soccer game in Seoul is the same as a soccer game in Wichita.
In the person of Caster Semenya, the runner from South Africa who on Saturday night at Olympic Stadium dominated the women’s 800m, winning in 1:55.28, these two big ideas clash.
It is entirely unclear how these tensions could — or should — be resolved.
It is in the person of Semenya that sport stands at one of its new frontiers — at the intersection of science, cultural norms and evolving standards of gender fluidity.
Here is the background to a dilemma that, even for those with the best intentions, offers no easy answers:
Many if not most other athletes as well as medical experts and sports journalists believe Semenya is intersex — that is, with the anatomical characteristics of both males and females.
This condition can lead to something called “hyperandrogenism.”
In plain English: Semenya’s body produces much higher levels of testosterone. These levels are considerably higher than most other females.
Testosterone is the essential male hormone.
Among other, things, it builds bigger muscles.
Semenya burst onto the international scene at the 2009 world championships in Berlin. There she ran 1:55.45 to win the 800. The crowd that shouted at her as she walked from a holding room to receive her medal was, to put it as graciously as possible, unflattering.
To shorten what has since been a very long, circuitous and nuanced story:
After the Berlin worlds, the sport’s governing body, the International Assn. of Athletics Federations, passed what it called an “eligibility” rule for “females with hyperandrogenism.” The rule is widely believed to have put the testosterone ceiling at 10 nanomoles per liter. The normal range for females is .5 to 3. For men, the normal range is 10 to 30.
Last year, sport’s top court suspended that rule. The IAAF says it intends, probably by next year, to promulgate a new rule, with the input of scientific, medical and other experts.
Since the rule went away, Semenya has been all but unbeatable. This naturally has led to speculation that in the intervening years Semenya had been using medication to suppress testosterone levels but is no longer doing so.
This summer, at a meet in Monaco, the last significant event before the Games, Semenya ran a personal-best 1:55.33. She wasn’t even breathing hard at the end.
That 1:55.33, incidentally, was more than a second better than any of the other seven athletes in Saturday’s final. Francine Niyonsaba of Burundi had the next-best personal-best, 1:56.24.
For weeks, the track and field community has been abuzz with the possibility that the world record, 1:53.28, set in 1983 by Jarmila Kratochvilova of what was then Czechoslovakia, would go down here in Rio. The Olympic record is 1:53.43, from the Soviet Union’s Nadezhda Olizarenko, at the 1980 Moscow Games.
That didn’t happen.
Semenya set a new national record with Saturday’s 1:55.28, Niyonsaba taking second in 1:56.49, Margaret Wambui of Kenya third in 1:56.89. The silver is the second medal in Olympic history for Burundi; Venuste Niyongabo won gold in the men’s 5000m in Atlanta in 1996.
Semenya essentially let the others hang around until about 150 meters to go. Then she turned on the jets.
“It’s all about the hard work, knowing your strengths and weaknesses. You work on what you know you can do best. I have speed,” Semenya said after the race. “So, yeah, I have speed.”
Another essential point of context:
Semenya did not ask for any controversy.
The haters — and there are many, indeed — have sometimes been just awful.
This is where the discussion must commence.
Semenya, like all of us and each of us, is entitled to a full measure of human dignity.
Asked the most appropriate response to the critics, Semenya said, “There’s nothing much I can say. I thank them for helping me to be a better person. For seeing a difference in the world — you know, for being a better person.
“If it wasn’t for them,” Semenya said, “I wouldn’t be a better person today. So I thank them all.”
She also said, "I don't know but I think, yeah, sports are meant to unite people. I think that's what we need to keep doing. It's just fantastic.
"I think I make a difference. I mean a lot to my people. That was my main focus - just doing it for my people."
Seb Coe, the IAAF president, said at a news conference Saturday evening before the race, “This is a very sensitive issue. Referring to all those in Saturday’s women’s 800m, he said, “They are sisters. They are daughters. I have daughters and I know how I would feel if this played out in the way some people have tried to play this out.”
There is a key distinction to be drawn between gender identity and competing in events reserved in international sport for females.
That is, sport has rules.
You have to draw lines somewhere. That’s what “rules” are.
There are some who say that naturally enhanced testosterone level, if that is indeed a Semenya attribute, is not the reason Semenya is able to run the way she does. It’s more complicated, they say, citing factors such as coaching, diet and access to other resource.
The answer to that is elemental:
See the impact of testosterone on the East German females in the 1970s, particularly the swimmers. Compare their dramatic results with the non-dramatic impact of the same stuff on the East German men.
It is assuredly the case that the interests of intersex athletes deserve robust discussion if not protection. If those interests are indeed what is at issue, it is also believed in many track and field circles that Semenya was not the only such athlete in Saturday’s final.
At the same time, this cannot be only about intersex competitors.
The interests of females with “normal” testosterone levels must be taken into account as well.
What to say, for instance, to American Kate Grace? She won the U.S. Trials in a personal-best 1:59.10. In Friday’s semifinal, she lowered that to 1:58.79.
The upshot: Grace got a lane in Saturday’s race. But did she have a chance to win? Not remotely.
She finished eighth of eight, in 1:59.57, more than four seconds back of Semenya, nearly three out of the medals. In the 800m, that is a lot of time.
Is that fair?
This, then, is the central question, because sport — and the Olympics particularly — is supposed to be about fair play.
“We’re just racing bodies out there,” Grace said moments after the race in comments that, for emphasis, were not intended to be and should not be read as critical.
“Everyone knew [those] who were racing, were racing legally. There has been — people are clean, which I think is, like, awesome to know you’re racing against clean athletes. To know that I got here as a clean athlete is great. That’s, like, kind of the only place my mind has been right now. I haven’t really been thinking about any other implications, just because I’ve had to be totally focused on my races.”
Asked what she would do if she were the IAAF, Grace said, “I’m not the IAAF. I don’t know. I won’t right now, in my post-race tiredness, tell them what to do. For me personally, I could improve. There are some women out there that I believe — there are people out there I believe I can beat. And that’s my focus.”