In the weeks to follow, the International Association of Athletic Federations, IAAF, will decide whether South African runner Caster Semenya will be stripped of the gold medal, after winning the women 800-meter race last Wednesday in Berlin at the World Championships in Athletics. Semenya is not guilty of the usual: doping. What is at issue, instead, is whether Semenya was eligible to race as a woman.
The decision of the IAAF will depend on the results of a “gender” or “sex verification test.” To the ears of some, this sounds like the IAAF pretends to have a test to determine whether Semenya is a woman. Other journalists, admit the possibility that the runner might belong to a third sex.
The IAAF has not given details about the test, except perhaps to re-assure the public that testing will not be restricted to the proverbial visual examination. “There is chromosome testing, gynecological investigation, all manner of things, organs, X-rays, scans,” declare Nick Davies, spokesman for the IAAF, according to the New York Times.
Hopefully, the IAAF will be more eloquent about the testing in the next couple of weeks. In the meantime, we can note some of the questions this case raises. One question is whether there are bona-fide biological categories to which the distinction between male and female can be reduced. Another question is why the male/female distinction matters to us, from the perspective of world athleticism. Lastly, there are moral questions that this case raises; in particular, there is a concern with the harm that the IAAF announcement may have caused to this 18 year-old who, we are told, has always identified herself as a woman.
One final thought. Suppose that Semenya’s genetic, hormonal, and endocrine profile is way different from the paradigmatic profile of a female 800-meter runner. Suppose her profile is also way different from the paradigmatic profile of a male runner. What would make her different from, say, the great Usain Bolt?
The levels of Selection Debate: Philosophical Issues
By Samir Okasha , University of Bristol
(Vol. 1, Februrary 2006)