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Friday, August 19, 2016

Olympics, Part IX: Women's 800 meters -- the triumph of diversity

The semifinals of the women's 800 meter run took place yesterday, and the differences between the competitors were striking. One of the finalists, Melissa Bishop of Canada, could be a model:

Finalist Kate Grace looks like the Yale graduate that she is:

Joanna Jozwik of Poland is 5' 6" and 117 pounds, a typical build for a middle distance runner:

But there are also some competitors who don't look quite as feminine. Caster Semenya has received a fair amount of publicity in the past. I've written about her before, here and here and here.

While Semenya's case has been well documented, finalist Margret Wambui of Kenya has gotten much less publicity:

It should be emphasized that neither Wambui and Semenya can help their appearance. They were born that way, and to my knowledge, neither has taken PEDs. This puts them, morally speaking, light years ahead of the runners who have doped. (And for all I know, one or more of the first three women shown in this post may be among that number.)

But, that still leaves the question of whether intersex athletes should be competing as women. Semenya, who was reportedly born with outward female genitalia but with internal testes instead of ovaries, obviously has a huge advantage over her rivals. In the past, she would not have been allowed to compete. The IOC now considers it overly intrusive to conduct such tests. In general, respecting peoples' privacy is a good thing; but in this case, it seems unfair to her competitors. They compete as women because they can't compete against men, who naturally have much higher testosterone levels. In the past, some of Semenya's competitors have said as much.

But the 800 has a long tradition of masculine, muscular women who dominate the event.

Here's Maria Mutola, of Mozambique, a ten time world champion at 800 meters who also won the gold in that event at the Sydney Olympics in 2000:

Here's Ana Quirot of Cuba, a two time world champion at 800 meters who also won silver in Atlanta in 1996:

And here is Jarmila Kratochvilova of Czechoslovakia, whose world record of 1:53.28 has stood since 1983:

Kratochvilova was said to be able to bench press 200 pounds.

Again, Semenya and Wambui aren't -- to my knowledge -- taking PED's, so deserve no censure. Nonetheless, it will be visually jarring to watch the 800 final on Saturday evening. It will appear at first glance -- and second -- to be a race between men and women.

And it opens up a host of touchy issues which most people prefer not to delve into.


Anonymous said...

In another facet of the multiverse, Jamie Lee Curtis is the alltime women's champion of some sport.

Apparently, there is good evidence she was born intersex. The facts are not public knowledge, but apparently numerous people at the time of 'her' birth knew the story. In those days before HIPPA, such things were talked of by medical personnel. No one will speak for the record who was privy to insider information-most would be dead now anyway-but it was widely talked about as soon as her film career started. I recall first hearing of it during a visit to Los Angeles at the time of the release of the movie, "Grandview USA", which wasn't exactly the start of her career, but it was the first film I had seen of hers.

There is a huge moral difference between those born with chromosomal abnormalities and those who affect "transgender" lifestyles out of erotic or delusional impulses. Steve Sailer's discussion of the numerous transsexuals in various fairly elite fields comes down to hom referring to it as "autogynephilia". Probably a good description.

But the intersex biological person, through no fault of his/her own, "smashes the stack", in the programming sense, in the world of athletics. Such individuals should be barred from athletics or required to compete as the more powerful sex.This is not a punishment or a judgment. It's an acknowledgement of reality.

John Craig said...

Anon --
I'm not sure that the intersex athletes should be competing against men anymore than they should be competing against women. Most of the powerful, masculine-looking athletes pictures above were able to go in the 1:53 - 1:55 range in the 800, which would not have made them competitive against the top men. Or think of Jamie Lee Curtis -- would she have been able to compete against men in sport? I'm not sure what the answer is. there aren't enough intersex athletes for them to have a league of their own, but in the meantime, having them compete against women seems unfair.

Anonymous said...

I wonder whether Caster Semenya's testosterone levels are within the allowable limit for female competitors. She must have been tested many times.

I've read that the testosterone limit for men is five times the level of the average man. This is to account for the fact that a small percentage of men naturally have testosterone levels that high.

If a man (or women) has naturally high testosterone levels, that is an advantage in sport. I've read that a lot of men (and women) test at 'suspiciously' high - but within the limit - levels. That could be partly a reflection of the fact that naturally high testosterone levels help people perform well, and that some are jacking their levels to just below the allowable limit.

I also read, somewhere along the line, that the testosterone limits for women are the same as men - which sounds absurd, and I would be happy to stand corrected.

But, if the testosterone limits for women were set at some 'reasonable' level, and Caster Semenya tested within that limit, I would see allowing her to compete against women.

If she's being granted an exception, that would be unfair.

- Ed

John Craig said...

Ed --
I just looked it up, and while the standards seem to have shifted a little, I think the upper limit of men is a testosterone to epitestosterone ratio of 4:1. (Average is closer to 1:1.) And for women, I read that it's at the "lower limit" of the male average, whatever that means. But I also read that in 2015 the CAS changed the rules for women so that women who are naturally hyperandrogenic no longer have to take hormone-suppressing drugs to get down to the normal female level -- as long as the high level occurs "naturally," i.e., without PED's. This gives a tremendous advantage to intersex athletes.

In 2011, Semenya ran a 1:55, then she was tested and forced to take the suppressors, and couldn't break 2:00 anymore. Then in 2015, they changed the rules to what they are now, meaning, testosterone-suppressing drugs no longer have to be taken, and Semenya is stronger than ever.

All of which begs the question of how being female is defined. If someone has a vagina, but internal testes rather than ovaries, is that person female?

Anonymous said...

I can't venture into the specifics of what developmental anomalies would, or would not, be within the definition of female in competitive sport. But sticking to the established testosterone limits for all female athletes, regardless of their developmental anomalies, would seem most fair to me.

- Ed