Contemporary Media Analysis: Caster Semenya’s Unfair Disadvantage

Contemporary Media Analysis: The unfair disadvantage Caster Semenya must face to compete for Olympic Gold



Track and field is not a widely watched sport outside of the Olympics. However, current events in track and field are attracting a lot of attention. Possibly the hottest topic the past couple months has been the case of Caster Semenya. Semenya is fresh off of a dominant gold medal winning performance in the Olympic women’s 800m final, but unfortunately she has not gotten the positive press you would think. She is intersex, a “hermaphrodite”. A 2010 gender test determined that she has no womb or ovaries, and that she has internal testes. Critics have claimed Semenya holds an unfair advantage against her competitors, as she has testosterone (T) levels that are higher than the vast majority of women. The article that I have chosen to analyze is authored by Eric Adelson, who believes Semenya is getting a very unfair draw. In this paper, I will address why I agree with Adelson that Semenya actually has an unfair disadvantage compared to other world class women’s 800m runners, because of the negative reaction of the media and other critics.

One reason that Adelson believes Semenya is so scrutinized is that sexual differences are simply judged more harshly than other deviations. People like Lebron James and Usain Bolt who have other genetic advantages in the sport they play do not suffer any criticism whatsoever. There is no reason that they should. In the article, Myron Genel, a senior research scientist at Yale, makes an interesting point regarding more accepted genetic advantages. He says, “It’s never suggested that Michael Phelps should step aside for the shorter Ryan Lochte because of something he can’t control. Nor is it suggested that, say, Kevin Durant should remove himself from the Olympics because he’s too close to the basketball rim” (Adelson).

Adelson also describes the harsh language used by Semenya’s critics. Semenya has been called a “ticking time bomb” (Adelson), because of the controversy that would explode when she inevitably won the Olympic gold medal. It was an interesting time for Adelson to write the article, as the controversy regarding Semenya had again risen with the Olympic Games on the horizon. Additionally, Semenya is said to have a “disorder,” whereas other professional athletes with genetic advantages are not. It is widely believed that Michael Phelps is somewhere on the spectrum of Marfan Syndrome, which is also a rare disease. However, the media never says that he has an unfair advantage because of a “disorder” or that he should not be able to compete against swimmers who do not show any symptoms of Marfan Syndrome.

Even more interestingly, people who have taken performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs) to gain an advantage over their competitors have not faced anywhere near as much controversy as Semenya. Jarmila Kratochvilova, a Czech woman who is the world record holder for the women’s 800m run (and former 400m world record holder), was almost certainly taking PEDs when she set the world record. She came from a Eastern Bloc Country (state sponsored doping) during an era of widespread doping. She set the world record in the first competitive 800m race she ever ran, having never raced longer than 400m in a major competition. She has not been as widely criticized as Semenya. As Genel, the Yale research scientist said, it seems very odd that people criticize the, “handful of women with naturally higher testosterone levels. Meanwhile, you’ve got doping incidents that are at an estimated 35 percent” (Adelson). Critics and the media react in a very backwards way by being harder on people with rare medical conditions than they are on dopers.

Another theme often talked about is that women seem to be judged more harshly than men for sexual deviations. There are very few, if any, men in sports who are criticized for having a more feminine appearance or lower levels of testosterone. Additionally, men will usually be criticized for having ultra-high testosterone only if they test positive for PEDs. Yet, when someone like Semenya comes around and dominates her event, people want to ban her for something that she can’t control. Mariya Savinova, the 2012 Olympic 800m champion from Russia, famously said, “just look at her,” after losing to Semenya at the 2009 World Championships (Adelson). This quote demonstrates that critics react harshly to Semenya because they are simply not used to “deviants” like her.

This ties in with another point made by Adelson, that appearance matters more than performance when women are judged in sports. In my mind, there is no doubt that Semenya’s situation would not be highly publicized if not for her “breathtakingly butch” appearance. People react negatively to Semenya because she looks different than the vast majority of women. Looking again at Savinova’s “just look at her” quote, it is obvious that she is skeptical of Semenya’s performance because of her appearance. Similarly, Paula Radcliffe said that Caster should not be able to race against other women, because she appears to be a man. Radcliffe herself is the one whose performances we should question. Radcliffe’s marathon world record is over 2 minutes faster than any other woman has ever run, and 3 of her blood samples were flagged as “suspicious” (Wilkinson). However, because she looks like a woman, she does not attract the scorn that Semenya does. Another example of this is Katie Ledecky, who is currently the best swimmer in the world. Much like Radcliffe, people will celebrate her performances, and the idea that she “swims like a guy” (Adelson), because Ledeckey looks like a woman.

Adelson also debates the common idea that a man will always perform better than a woman in sports. Probably his strongest point comes from a study declaring, “there is no clear scientific evidence proving that a high level of T is a significant determinant of performance in female sport”(Adelson). The abovementioned Genel also states that “There are a number of athletes who have at one time or another been in the spotlight because they have excelled and have had one or another disorder that’s related to sexual development. It’s hard to say that is the only reason why they excelled”(Adelson). Paula Radcliffe, the world record holder in the women’s marathon, said that a gold medal for Caster would mean, “it’s no longer sport and no longer an open race”(Adelson). Radcliffe clearly believes that a person with high T levels would always hold an advantage in women’s sports. The fact that Radcliffe believes this in spite of scientific evidence demonstrates another of the author’s claims: that critics will shelve scientific research because they are scared and have trouble comprehending what is going on around them.

The last point of the article that I will address here is that the media largely determines a person’s sexuality. The first way that this happened with Semenya was in 2010 when she had to undergo a gender test that showed she has internal testes (Sharpstein). After this, most of the public decided to shame Semenya and call her a man. The media should have tried to see Semenya’s human side and understand the pain she is going through. The critics and media again failed to realize that the things they were (and still are) saying about her are incredibly offensive, harmful, and degrading. This is evidenced by a statement from Caster’s uncle in response to the scrutiny she has received. He said, “We are very humiliated by what has been said and do not understand how it can be true. This is a woman who was raised a female. She will always be a female, no matter what people say”(Sharpstein). I think it is important for people to remember that everyone has feelings, and that everyone deserves respect even if he or she is different than most other people. Those who do not want Semenya to compete in women’s races should still try to be understanding and respectful of her feelings.

Now that I have talked about the prejudices and biases that Adelson believes make people criticize Semenya, I will talk about some of the ways that this criticism creates an unfair disadvantage compared to her other competitors. Semenya’s critics fail to see her human side, and this causes them to judge her in inappropriate ways. While she ran away with the 800m gold at this last Olympics, she could have possibly accomplished something much greater- breaking a 33 year old world record. Because she knew that there would be an enormous amount of controversy if she broke the world record, Semenya visibly refrained from running as hard as she could have in the first 650m of the race (over 80% of the race distance). She did the same thing in London in 2012, and that time it also cost her a gold medal- to Mariya Savinova.

The controversy has affected Semenya’s performance in other ways. For a time, Semenya had to take testosterone-repressing medications. When she was on these medications, she was not running near as fast as she is now. However, that could be at least partly because being required to take medications like that is probably incredibly demoralizing and distracting. Athletes of any level simply cannot perform at their best if they are unable to properly focus on the task at hand. Even when Semenya competes, the scandal following her tends to keep her from running at her best.

I can understand why many people do not receive Semenya very well. She is nothing like anything that her critics are used to, so they will naturally question whether she should be allowed to compete. However, regardless of a person’s individual opinion, she should not be receiving such degrading comments. While she may have an advantage over the rest of her female competitors, sports can never be perfectly fair. If people realize that she cannot control her advantage like many of her competitors (drug cheats for example), then I believe that critics will at least think about her situation and try to consider the trouble she is going through.