Caster Semanya and the Purity of Sport September 10, 2009Posted by Matt Brown in Sports, Transhumanism.
Tags: 800m, Caster Semanya, gender, hermaphrodite, performance enhancement, Sports
Caster Semanya is all over the news. By now you’ve probably heard the details (if not you can read them below) so I won’t go into them here. Suffice to say that Ms. Samanya, the woman’s 800m champion, possess internal testes and is thus not technically a women. When I first read this story I thought it was an interesting end to a story I had been following for awhile. What I missed at the time was that this story is not simply about Semanya but has implications for the very foundation of sports.
To understand what I mean you have to understand why people are so concerned with whether or not Semanya is a woman. In regards to the testing performed on Semanya the IAAF says, “These tests do not suggest any suspicion of deliberate misconduct but seek to assess the possibility of a potential medical condition which would give Semenya an unfair advantage over her competitors. There is no automatic disqualification of results in a case like this.”
A potential medical condition which gives her an unfair advantage. Think about that for a minute. Forget for a second that it is her gender which is in question and what the IAAF is saying is that they are investigating whether or not she has a natural advantage over the other athletes. This is really not the issue as she clearly does have an advantage, her testes giving her far more testosterone (the prime muscle building hormone) than other female competitors. The issue is whether or not she, and by extension other athletes, can and should be punished for having a natural gift, whether or not an athlete can be punished for having a body with a natural advantage. Should the IAAF answer yes the implications are staggering. Could Michael Phelps be banned from competing because of his genes have given him an almost perfect swimmer’s body? Should Lance Armstrong be stripped of his titles because his cancer treatment left him with a different, possibly more advantageous, physique? What conditions are allowed and which ones can get you banned? Believe me I realize this sounds crazy but it’s not unthinkable. It is exactly where the purity of sport argument takes us.
The purity of sport argument is the overarching reason why things like this or performance enhancing drugs are even talked about. The argument basically goes that we must ensure that sports is a level playing field, where no athlete has an unfair advantage over the other and all are free to succeed or fail based only on there own talent and determination. It is a wonderful ideal that, at least for Americans, touches at the very heart of what we consider our core values; belief in individualism, fair play and the idea that if you work hard enough you can do anything. Unfortunately, as I have said many times before, it’s also complete rubbish. There is one major flaw in the argument and Caster Semanya exemplifies it perfectly: there is no such thing as a level playing field. Caster Semanya, like most champions, was born with an innate advantage over her opponents. Yes, she had to work very hard to get to the level she is at today, but the fact remains that she possess physical gifts that set her apart from the rest of her competition. To punish her for that is to admit that the purity of sport argument has failed, that there is no level playing field and attempts to enforce the idea are doomed to fail.
The thing is, while there isn’t a level playing field now there could be one in the future if we allow it. Far from widening the gulf between athletes, things like performance enhancers could serve to make all athletes essentially equal at the biological level. If Caster Semanya’s excess testosterone gives her an advantage then the solution is not to punish her for something she didn’t do but to give her opponents the option to have that same advantage. With all athletes biologically equal the only advantage one could have would be in skill or the will to succeed, which is what sport is all about anyway. Give athletes control over their own bodies and far from destroying sports you may just make it better.