Caster Semenya, and the myth of the uneven playing field

May 8, 2019
Caster Semenya. (AP Photo/Kamran Jebreili)

South African track and field superstar Caster Semenya is a two-time Olympic gold medalist and three-time world champion in the women’s 800-meter. She may have run her last race at the international level thanks to a May 1 ruling by the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS). The court upheld an International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) policy limiting the amount of testosterone female athletes are allowed in their system while still qualifying as women.

Gender Test After a Gold-Medal Finish” reads the headline of Semenya’s first-ever mention in The New York Times, published August 19, 2009, following her first-place finish in the 800-meter at the world championships in Berlin. The following day, the paper followed up with “Gold Awarded Amid Dispute Over Runner’s Sex.” Whether journalists knew it or not, they were priming their readers to think Semenya’s win was unjust. Making matters worse, these stories included quotes from other athletes saying things like “She’s not a woman. She’s a man,” and a dismissive “Just look at her.” On July 6, 2010, the IAAF cleared Semenya to resume competition. The following month, the Times published the stories “As Semenya Returns, So Do Questions” and “Semenya Is Back, but Acceptance Lags.” In the nine years since, you’d be hard-pressed to find a story about Semenya that didn’t make mention of her eligibility or include a quote about “fairness” from a competitor upset about not finding a spot on the podium.

ICYMI: I wrote a story that became a legend. Then I discovered it wasn’t true.

The controversy surrounding Semenya echoes the broader media treatment of intersex athletes. The argument being made against Semenya is the same one that was made about Indian runner Dutee Chand, and Spanish hurdler Maria José Martínez-Patiño before that. While transgender and intersex are not the same thing, they’re often conflated in public discussion. (“Transgender” is a term used to describe somebody who was assigned one gender at birth but identifies with and will often medically transition to another. “Intersex” is a term used to describe any number of medical conditions where someone is born with characteristics outside of the typical male and female binary, ranging from the noticeable to the invisible.) The terms were confused last week when Fox News reporter Carley Shimkus incorrectly referred to Semenya as “a transgender Olympic runner” during an episode of Fox & Friends. Shimkus apologized the following day.

Both trans and intersex athletes are often accused of unfair competitive advantages that supposedly threaten to eliminate women’s athletics as such, and the notion that these competitors should compete in some sort of separate category goes back decades.

“Women’s sports will [be] taken over by a giant race of surgically created women” reads a letter published in the September 5, 1976, edition of The New York Times, later adding, “Perhaps there should now be three categories for athletic competitions—female, male and others.”

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The letter was written in reference to transgender tennis player Renée Richards’s fight to compete in the Women’s US Open. When Richards got clearance to play, there was (unfounded) fear that she’d usher in a new era of male athletes transitioning to female for the glory of sports fame and fortune. Trans and intersex athletes are framed—in headlines, and stories—as unbeatable when they may really just be average. (Richards, for example, never made it past the third round in her five US Open appearances, and was eliminated twice in the first round.) When they do win, the wins are often qualified with questions of fairness and controversy. A New York Times article about Brazilian volleyball player Tifanny Abreu, for instance, ran under the headline “Transgender Volleyball Star in Brazil Eyes Olympics and Stirs Debate.”

Following her win in the 35-44 age group at the master’s track world championships in October, trans cyclist Rachel McKinnon became the target of hostile reporting that called into question whether it was fair for her to compete against other women at all. Jennifer Wagner, who placed third, proclaimed on Twitter that McKinnon’s win was “definitely NOT fair.” Baffled by Wagner’s claim, McKinnon noted that Wagner has actually won 11 out of their 13 head-to-head matchups.

“This is what the double-bind for trans women athletes looks like: when we win, it’s because we’re transgender and it’s unfair; when we lose, no one notices (and it’s because we’re just not that good anyway). Even when it’s the SAME racer. That’s what transphobia looks like,” she posted on Twitter.

Stories about so-called dominant trans athletes are cherry-picked for use in moral panic narratives by far-right outlets. For months, conservative media outlets highlighted the story of CeCe Telfer, an NCAA Division II track and field athlete. “Biological Male is Top-Ranked NCAA Women’s Track Star” reads a headline at The Daily Caller. “Equality? Male NCAA Track Star Switches to Female Senior Year And Cleans Up,” goes another at The Daily Wire. The Hot Air and RedState blogs ran similar stories, headlined “Transgender Athletes Continue to Destroy Women’s Sports” and “Sad Sack: Man Sets Record in NCAA Women’s Track — And He’s Headed For The March Championships,” respectively.

At the national championships, Telfer finished sixth in the 60-meter hurdles and failed to qualify for the final in her other event after coming in twelfth place during the preliminaries. None of the above sites reported on the event when it didn’t play into the narrative about unfair advantage.

Finally, journalists need to exercise caution when considering who to quote. Good Morning America’s profile of trans runners Terry Miller and Andraya Yearwood featured an upset parent as an authority, even though it was clear that she didn’t have all the facts on the girls’ transition and participation.

Journalists should take into account how their words could be used to reinforce ignorance. If the only time readers learn about trans or intersex athletes is in the context of their supposed dominance, it makes sense that they may come away with under the impression that their inclusion is inherently unfair. And reporters should  ask themselves why they’re quoting someone’s opinion about a fact and whether that helps or hinders overall public understanding. By shaping public perception, they also shape policy.

ICYMI: WSJ reporter explains why he was fired

Parker Molloy is a Chicago-based writer and editor at large at Media Matters for America, a progressive watchdog organization dedicated to monitoring, analyzing, and correcting conservative misinformation in the US media. Follow her on Twitter @ParkerMolloy.