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Kamila Valieva, Lia Thomas, and Fairness in Sports

So far, the biggest moment of the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics has not been record-breaking stunts or underdog wins, but an issue that has been pervasive in the Olympics throughout the past decade: doping. The issue has become a major topic of conversation every Olympics, especially after the 2014 Winter games in Sochi, Russia, where a state-run doping scandal was taking place and only discovered a year later. While Russia is still technically banned from the Olympics, individual athletes from Russia have been allowed to compete in the Olympics since 2014. Now, Russia’s history with doping has once again become a focus, as have the lenient reactions of governing bodies like the International Olympic Committee (IOC), after it was revealed that a top figure skater, Kamila Valieva, tested positive.

What made this news so controversial were two things: the timing and the consequences. Valieva’s sample was taken on December 25th, after she won the free skate in the Russian National Championships. However, the lab responsible for testing her sample had not reported the results until February 8th, after Valieva helped the Russian Olympic Committee (ROC) win gold in the team skate and was the first female skater to land two quadruple jumps in the Olympics. The drug she tested positive for, Trimetazidine, is a heart medication that has helps athletes with their endurance, which would give her a significant advantage in figure skating competition. She was suspended and then quickly cleared by a Russian anti-doping organization. But the most shocking decision was the Court of Arbitration in Sports allowing her to compete in the individual free skate, an event that she was favored to win.

The decision to let Valieva compete has created just as much controversy as the original positive test. Former Olympic figure skater and now coach, Adam Rippon, has suggested that Russia’s original ban by the IOC was clearly not strict enough as their best athletes are continuing to test positive. Further, Rippon has also pointed out that Valieva is only fifteen, and her status as a minor means that it is her coach and guardians that bear the greatest responsibility. Given this, Valieva has generally been met with sympathetic responses as no one knows the extent to which she might be complicit. Would-be Olympian Shi’Carri Richardson, however, has pointed out the double standard at play – as she was banned from the Tokyo 2020 Olympics for testing positive for marijuana after she found out her mother died. Like Valieva, Richardson was expected to be a heavy favorite (in the 100-meter dash), but marijuana – while listed as a banned substance – is not a performance-enhancing drug. (Another difference, of course, is that Valieva is white, whereas Richardson is Black.)

While Valieva may deserve sympathy as a child, athletes expect that competitors will be held to the same standard when it comes to positive tests for banned substances – perhaps especially when competing at something as grand as the Olympics. The decision to allow Valieva to compete – even if disqualified from the medal ceremony – illustrates a certain acceptance among the top sports governing bodies of doping at the world’s largest stage for athletic performances. Skaters in the individual event must perform knowing that their biggest competition has a leg-up. And if Valieva is met with understanding and shown leniency, what would stop other athletes (or coaches) from expecting that their rule-breaking behavior might be similarly excused? The basis for athletic competition is the expectation of a level playing field, but complacency about doping threatens to undermine the integrity of athletic contests.

Valieva’s case is related to another controversy brewing in the sports world: transgender athletes competing in women’s sports. While public response to Valieva’s situation has been largely sympathetic and respectful, the same cannot quite be said of the treatment of Lia Thomas. In a somewhat similar case, a governing sports body – this time the NCAA – needed to determine quickly whether a University of Pennsylvania (UPenn) swimmer, Lia Thomas, would be able to compete at the conference championships in March. Recently, the NCAA had decided to no longer have a uniform policy for transgender athletes across all sports, but instead to allow individual sports governing bodies to have their own requirements. For Lia Thomas, this meant she would be disqualified from competing because the USA Swimming policy required trans athletes to undergo 36 months of hormone therapy and prove they do not have an unfair advantage from their sex assigned at birth. By the time of the conference championships Thomas would’ve been at 33 months of hormone therapy. Thomas’ absence would completely change the championships as she holds two of the top times in the nation.

What added to the controversy and sparked debate amongst women’s athletic communities was the reaction from sixteen of her teammates. The teammates, referring to themselves as biological women, released an anonymous letter pleading that UPenn or the Ivy League accept Thomas’s ban and not sue the NCAA. They justified their position by explaining how Thomas had taken away their chance to compete at the conference meet, in which only about half of the team makes the roster. In response, over 300 current and former competitive swimmers voiced their support for Thomas, as well as other trans and non-binary athletes in their sport. Crucially, they also highlighted the true issue of this situation, which is that while real problems that have been ongoing for decades in women’s sports, such as sexual abuse, unequal treatment between men’s and women’s athletics, and unfair pay, opponents have mistakenly decided to blame a transwoman for the downfall of fairness in women’s sports.

There has been a marked difference in the ways the sports world, particularly the women’s sports world, has reacted to these situations. Valieva clearly cheated; she tested positive for a performance-enhancing drug – whether she knowingly took the drug or was coerced by adults. Her continued competition in the Olympics has now taken away from every skater who worked their entire life in the hopes of one day making it there. It calls into question the integrity of not only the team and free skate competitions, but also the Games as a whole. Fellow competitors, commentators, and the general public seem upset, but also believe sympathy and respect are called for. Lia Thomas, meanwhile, was castigated by her own teammates and has faced a wave of backlash (often transphobic) over her supposed “biological” advantage.

The woman who helped to publish the letter by Thomas’s sixteen teammates is former Olympian, civil rights lawyer, and women’s rights advocate Nancy Hogshead-Makar who published an editorial defending their position. In the editorial, Hogshead-Makar compares Thomas not only to her old rivals, the doping East German athletes from the 1980s, but also to Michael Phelps, a male swimmer, who ironically has his own biological advantages, yet is celebrated as a sports phenom. While Hogshead-Makar insists that her ultimate aim is to break down the inequalities between men’s and women’s sports, she can’t see that her own argument is inherently sexist – accepting a biologically advantaged male as exceptional, but a transwoman with over a year of hormone therapy as threatening.

Additionally, Hogshead-Makar demonstrates remarkable indifference in suggesting Thomas either compete in men’s swimming, something that would most likely cause some level of trauma from having to be defined under the wrong gender, or forfeit participation in official competition and simply swim in exhibition races. Indeed, Hogshead-Maker is adamant that women should not give up the gains they have fought for against men “no matter how real the harms suffered by transgender athletes.” While purporting to be a supporter of women’s sports and of Lia Thomas’s gender identity, Hogshead-Makar simply refuses to recognize Thomas as a woman. If she did, she would be embracing Thomas with open arms and recognizing a great athlete for what they are – someone who overcame unique and difficult barriers to fully realize themselves.

Welcoming transgender athletes into women’s sports – obviously with certain guidelines to ensure fairness – should be the goal of all women in women’s sports, as it is true they have fought hard (and continue to fight) for equal recognition with men’s sports. Welcoming more women and greater competition can only help further women’s sports in its mission of equality. In the end, the true threat to the integrity of sports lies not in the inclusion or exclusion of gender identities, but in complacency about doping.

Lia Thomas, Fairness in Sport, and Honest Ethical Debate in a World of Bad Faith

photograph of swimming lanes from underwater

In the past few months, women’s collegiate swimming has become the unlikely focus of a political firestorm around transgender rights and fairness in sports. At the very center of the storm is Lia Thomas, a senior at the University of Pennsylvania who competed successfully on the men’s team before transitioning to female and joining UPenn’s women’s team this year.

Thomas’s participation in women’s swimming began to stir controversy at the end of 2021 when she posted top times in distance free-style events, including a 200 free performance that was quicker than the NCAA gold-medal time the year before. Her times in these and other events are significantly slower than before her transition — apparently the result of compliance with the NCAA’s requirement that transwomen take testosterone-suppressing drugs for twelve months before competing — but they are still championship quality. In early December, some parents of Thomas’s teammates penned a letter to the NCAA arguing that Thomas should not be allowed to compete. Right-wing media outlets like the Daily Mail, the New York Post, and Fox News smelled blood in the water and went after Thomas without mercy, smearing her character and decrying the unfairness of allowing her to swim. This comes as GOP-dominated legislatures in many states are pushing to pass bills banning transgender children from using the bathrooms of their choice or participating in the sports with others of their own gender. Last month, the NCAA responded to the controversy by dropping its rules on transgender participation and passing the buck to the national governing bodies in all sports. (On February 10, the NCAA announced that it would not adopt new, more stringent USA Swimming requirements for the 2022 season).

The Thomas case has divided the swimming world and even, to some extent, the LGBTQ community. Iconic Olympic swimmers Michael Phelps and Nancy Hogshead-Makar questioned whether Thomas should compete on a women’s team, but Brooke Forde, a top NCAA female swimmer, stated that because “treating people with respect and dignity is more important than any trophy or record will ever be,” she has “no problem” competing against Thomas. GLAAD, an organization that monitors coverage of LGBTQ people in the media, lambasted the negative coverage of Thomas and said that “everyone involved in sports should be speaking up for Lia.” Meanwhile, Martina Navratolina, a legendary tennis player and champion of LGBTQ rights, has cast doubt on the fairness of letting Thomas compete.

Even the act of publicly staking out a position on this issue is fraught with ethical peril. Do right-wing media outlets and GOP politicians really care about the fairness of NCAA women’s sports competitions? It seems doubtful. The Thomas story is catnip for them because they see in it another potential wedge issue in the interminable culture wars. That the fear-mongering and bigotry on the right dominate the discourse on this subject means that even the public expression of uncertainty about the fairness of allowing Thomas to compete can seem like a gift to these malign actors. It was surely useful for the right that Hogshead-Makar published her column about Thomas in the Daily Mail: it gave its bigotry a veneer of respectability based upon her expertise on the subject of women’s swimming.

Of course, the ethical dangers of publicly speaking about this issue are less severe in my case, since my contributions to the public debate have vanishingly little influence. Still, I want to begin my discussion by stating what I take to be an obvious ethical proposition: there are no reasonable moral objections to the desires or self-conceptions of transgender people as such, or to the realization of those desires and self-conceptions. I have encountered no reasonable case for the claim that wanting to present as another gender or have the secondary sexual characteristics of another sex is bad in any sense. Given this, the moral presumption in all areas of life should be in favor of inclusivity — of allowing transgender people to participate in whatever practices or activities they wish, and on their own terms.

Nevertheless, it does not follow from this that there cannot be ethical problems associated with inclusivity in particular areas of life. Sports, or perhaps just some sports, may be one of those areas. That is because it appears that men have (on average) certain physical “advantages” over women, and sport — or at least some sports — is one of the few areas in life where that matters. For example, the average differential in the men’s and women’s ‘A’ standard times for NCAA championship qualifications is 11.41%, meaning that on average, women’s times are 11.41% slower than men’s times. While in the 2004 Olympics Michael Phelps held a mere .08% time advantage against his teammate Ryan Crocker, he held a 12.62% advantage over the women’s gold medalist.

To say that biological males have physical advantages over biological females is, of course, a gross simplification. For one thing, it is by now widely recognized that determining biological sex is itself a philosophically and scientifically complex issue. It appears that the physical advantages referenced above are more directly tied to the lasting effects of typical “male” puberty, not the chromosomal makeup of an athlete, their genitalia, or the type of gamete they produce. For example, people with Klinefelter syndrome — a genetic condition that results when boys are born with an extra X chromosome — have male genitalia, and some produce sperm. But some of these individuals produce lower amounts of testosterone and have reduced muscle mass. Similarly, South African runner Caster Semenya, who was assigned female at birth and identifies as female, has XY chromosomes and naturally elevated testosterone levels. In 2019, new rules were instituted to keep women like Semenya from participating in certain events unless they take medication to lower their testosterone levels. Yet it’s far from clear how significant testosterone levels are to elite athletic performance.

Despite these complications, it seems fairly clear that it makes moral sense for women and men to compete separately in at least some sports, and that secondary sexual characteristics are a decent rule of thumb — but only that — for determining who “women” and “men” are for the purposes of such competitions. One important purpose of sports competitions is to celebrate and reward human effort and skill — the incredible discipline, determination, and grit that is required to achieve in athletics at a high level, along with the physical prowess that channels that effort into astounding physical feats. Therefore, it would be unfair if women were never rewarded or celebrated for their effort and skill because they were overshadowed by male performances that are due to innate advantages — advantages that in no way reflect superior effort or skill. By separating men and women into competitive classes, we make possible public appreciation of the fact that the best male and female athletic performances are equally amazing efforts and reflect equally amazing skills. The same is true, for example, for weight classes in boxing: the bantamweight’s skill and effort may be equal to the heavyweight’s, but if they competed against each other the bantamweight would lose every time, and would not be properly celebrated or rewarded for his or her effort and skill.

If this is correct, however, then it is clear that allowing people who possess the innate advantages that flow from male puberty to compete against cisgender women may raise real issues of fairness by depriving those who do not have these advantages of public appreciation of their efforts and skills, even though they are no less substantial.  

But in order to get to the conclusion that transwomen should not be allowed to compete in women’s sports from these premises, we must make three further moves — moves that I am not confident we can or ought to make. First, we must define the meaning and parameters of “innate advantage.” This is at best an extremely difficult task for both conceptual and empirical reasons. For example, we must determine when the difference in an athlete’s performance relative to other athletes’ performances is the result of acceptable physical variation, and when it is the result of unacceptable innate advantage. Second, we have to posit that no amount of hormone therapy can eliminate transwomen athletes’ innate advantages. This is an empirical issue that can only be determined with solid scientific investigation, something that is woefully lacking in this area. Finally, we have to argue that transwomen athletes’ claims to inclusion are morally outweighed by the fairness issues discussed above. This is not self-evidently true, as Brooke Forde’s statement suggests.

For these reasons, I think it is far too early in the day to claim with much confidence either that transwomen should be banned from women’s sport, or that their inclusion in women’s sport obviously raises no fairness issues. There are potential fairness issues that deserve serious consideration, not least because those fairness claims are being made by cisgender women, who have had to fight hard to participate in sports on an equal footing with men. Indeed, that fight is not yet over. But this much is clear: In addition to causing immense harm to individual athletes and perpetuating bigotry against transgender people, demonizing transwomen athletes is not the way to arrive at a just resolution of these issues. The only way forward is honest, good faith deliberation in which all stakeholders are treated with respect. Unfortunately, there are powerful people who would like nothing more than to make it impossible for such deliberation to occur. But this has always been the case; and yet, somehow, progress does happen.

The (un)Fairness of Cis-Only Sports

photograph of staggered starting blocks for track competition

On February 12th, three families sued to make women’s sport in Connecticut exclude trans athletes from participating. But this is just one event in a trend of anti-LGBTQ legislation and litigation in 2020, including bills in South Dakota, Florida, and Colorado that would make it a felony for medical professionals to provide healthcare to trans minors, despite the American Academy of Pediatrics’ statement in 2018 advocating for a “gender-affirming approach” to care for minors.

These teens in Connecticut are not alone in pursuing action for trans exclusion in sport: Alabama, Georgia, Indiana, Missouri, New Hampshire, Tennessee, and Washington all have Republican-sponsored bills under consideration “prohibiting transgender student athletes from participating in gender-segregated sports in a way that’s consistent with their gender identity.”

Attorney Christiana Holcomb (using transphobic language that erases the fact that trans girls *are* girls) made the claim: “Forcing girls to be spectators in their own sports is completely at odds with Title IX, a federal law designed to create equal opportunities for women in education and athletics.” Note that if the plaintiffs have their way, girls who aren’t cis aren’t simply being forced “to be spectators in their own sports,” but rather are being excluded completely from competition.

Identifying gender with an underlying biological feature is actually pretty difficult from a biological perspective. In 2018, the Trump administration attempted to define gender biologically and received a great deal of criticism from medical and gender specialists alike. “The idea that a person’s sex is determined by their anatomy at birth is not true, and we’ve known that it’s not true for decades,” said executive director of the Center for Transgender Medicine and Surgery at Mount Sinai Health System in New York, Dr. Joshua D. Safer. Chromosomes, hormones, or external anatomical features like genitals are insufficient indicators to categorize the population into two rigid gender binaries. Further, two percent of the population have differences of sexual development (sometimes self-identifying as “intersex”) – this is roughly the same portion of the population that has red hair.

So why are athletes clinging to identities given to them based on apparent anatomy at birth?

One of the teen athlete plaintiffs, articulated their position: “That biological unfairness doesn’t go away because of what someone believes about gender identity. All girls deserve the chance to compete on a level playing field.” The “biological unfairness” alluded to here is the supposed competitive advantage that trans women have over cis women. The statements made by the teens make many appeals to fairness in sport and making sure everyone gets “their chance.”

“Fairness” may be a common value that we appeal to pretty frequently, but it doesn’t describe a stable state of affairs: it means different things in different contexts. Being fair to employees may mean giving the same salary to those who do the same amount of work, or it could mean giving more money to those who have been employed for longer at the company. Being fair to individuals in a classroom may mean not making discriminations (say, in awarding grades) on the basis of health and likely lifespans, whereas in the context of determining organ transplant recipients, health and likely lifespans may be a morally permissible standard for discrimination.

In competitive sport, “fairness” is a complicated standard. Competitors are understood to be looking for and developing advantages over their opponents. If an athlete perceives a weakness in an opponent, taking advantage of it is often the appropriate response. Outside of competitive sport, taking advantage of a weakness can be a textbook case of exploitation.

Basically, in sport, having a competitive advantage is not the same thing as having an unfair advantage. From there, the fairness issue gets complicated further because there is empirical evidence that trans women do not achieve a “significant” competitive advantage after transitioning. The advantage that is found can be estimated “from 2-3%.”

Competitive sport is competitive in the sense that training and in-sport strategy is largely concerned with garnering advantages for one’s own side and diminishing advantages for one’s opponent. Living and presenting as one’s gender is not the same thing as seeking these advantages any more than having a disposition for a particular height may give an advantage for some sports. However, the claim made by some who are attempting to exclude trans women is that any advantage they may have over cis women in virtue of being trans is an unfair one – is different than the advantage gained by happening to be a particular height. It is important to acknowledge that different sports privilege different physical presentations. In basketball, for instance, being tall represents a considerable advantage – more than 2-3% – while in gymnastics it represents a disadvantage.

The range of differences in gender performance in competitive sport is also significant: in the Iditarod, women frequently win overall, and in many endurance sports the gender gap is quite small, but in competitive weightlifting the gap reaches nearly 37%. These gaps receive a great deal of interpretation; during the 20th century, women’s sport achievement improved at a remarkably fast rate and the previously wider gap decreased. The increased access to resources, training, and competitions fostered women in sport. It is difficult to predict, given advances in sports science, training, and hopefully further progress in gender inclusion, how the performance gap will behave in the future.

A systematic review of the literature pertaining to sport policies in transgender people in 2017 concluded: “there is no direct or consistent research suggesting transgender female individuals (or male individuals) have an athletic advantage at any stage of their transition (e.g. cross-sex hormones, gender-confirming surgery) and, therefore, competitive sport policies that place restrictions on transgender people need to be considered and potentially revised.”

If we grant the 3% advantage, and determine this to be an “unfair” advantage, this does not necessarily lead to one clear call to action. For instance, in 2018, ethicists considering the advantage that trans women may hold in competitions concluded not that this should lead to exclusion from sport, but rather a more critical attitude towards male/female categories in sport in the first place. In 2019, ethicists suggested traits that are relevant to particular sports’ skill be the determining factor to segregate classes. For instance, we could consider dividing basketball into height classes, which would allow for shorter, skilled players to compete. This could mirror weight classes in boxing and martial arts competitions, for instance.

While the underlying value that the plaintiffs are appealing to is “fairness,” their aim is to exclude their fellow athletes from competing. A more critical analysis of why the aim of a fair competition and success in sport is required for these athletes to move forward. Perhaps they should consider why the the American Civil Liberties Union is on the other side of their case: though the plaintiffs are appealing to Title IX’s gender protections, the ACLU has said it will represent the transgender teens: “Attorney Chase Strangio, deputy director for Trans Justice with the ACLU LGBT & HIV Project, said transgender girls also are protected by Title IX.” Women get to play sports.

The Gray Area at the Intersection of Gender, Biology, and Identity in Sport

Runner Caster Semenya running across a finish line on a track in a stadium

There is a case currently before the at the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) in Switzerland in which South African runner Caster Semenya is contesting a new rule proposed by the International Association of Athletic Federations (IAAF) that aims to restrict the levels of testosterone in female runners.

Semenya’s challenge is being closely watched, as the ruling will have important implications for the category of women’s sport and the rights of intersex and transgender athletes to participate in it.

Caster Semenya is not a transgender athlete, she was born female and has always identified as female; she does, however, have naturally much higher testosterone levels than most women by virtue of a DSD condition. DSD conditions are congenital, and they cover a range of cases in which development of chromosomal, gonadal, or anatomical sex is atypical.

DSD can stand for “disorder of sexual development,” which is essentially a medical term that takes intersex traits and other variant or atypical sex development as medical abnormalities. But, at least in the literature outside professional medicine, the terminology of ‘disorder’ is adjusted so that DSD stands for “difference in sexual development” to reflect dissatisfaction with classing intersex conditions as disorders that require correction, treatment or surgical intervention in favour of accepting these as natural variations in human anatomy and physiology.

The range of DSD conditions includes the presence of internal testes in females, which results in much higher than usual testosterone levels. Typical testosterone levels in women and in over 99 percent of  female athletes ranges from 1.12 to 1.79 nmol/L (nanomoles per litre), while the normal adult male range is 7.7-29.4 nmol/L. The IAAF wants a limit of 5nmol/L – which would exclude Semenya from the competing.

The IAAF argues that:

“If a DSD athlete has testes and male levels of testosterone, they get the same increases in bone and muscle size and strength and increases in haemoglobin that a male gets when they go through puberty, which is what gives men such a performance advantage over women.”

The rule, if upheld, would necessitate athletes like Semenya take testosterone suppression drugs for 6 months prior to competing.

Semenya contends that the rule is discriminatory, irrational, unjustifiable and a “violation of the rules of sport and universally-recognised human rights.” She says: “I just want to run naturally, the way I was born. It is not fair that I am told I must change. It is not fair that people question who I am. I am Mokgadi Caster Semenya. I am a woman and I am fast.”

A central question here is why her physical competitive advantage should be treated differently from any other competitive advantage gained by a natural physiological trait –when natural physical strengths are the essence of elite athleticism.

It isn’t easy in this case to make a definitive judgement because of the fuzziness of operative concepts like female and male at the intersection of sex, gender, biology/physiology and identity. It goes to the heart of feminist and LGTBQI challenges to the notion that sex, gender and sexuality are correlated binaries.

The IAAF claims that it is not trying to cast doubt on Semenya’s gender, but just to preserve the categories of female and male sport so that the competition is fair for all, yet these seem like contradictory claims. At the very least the IAAF are making a determination on what counts as female in the sense that it is determining the parameters in principle of that category, physiologically, in a way that in effect qualifies or disqualifies someone from competition.

That a ruling must be made on something that is essentially not determinate makes it very difficult to balance rights of DSD athletes against those of women in sport, and points up the inherent tensions between fairness and inclusivity.

Until quite recently it has been usual practice for medical professionals to assign a gender at birth to intersex babies followed by socialization, and sometimes further or ongoing medical interventions. Intersex traits, and other DSDs do not of themselves cause medical problems, but have long been considered as abnormalities which necessitated the assignment of a male or female gender as a treatment or correction.

Intersex activists have been campaigning against medical jurisdiction over the intersex/DSD body as well as for non-interventionist policies including cessation of gender assignment surgeries and other medical interventions, on the basis that bodies that are gender diverse, or display differences of sexual development, are normal, healthy bodies which simply represent instances of atypical variations on the statistically average male/female body.

In light of these types of consideration, many, including the South African government, consider any rule requiring Semenya to take testosterone suppressant drugs to be a gross violation of human rights. By taking such measures, the IAAF would be implicitly treating her as having a deviant physiology which could be corrected to normalize her.

If the ruling holds, Semenya can compete only if she changes her own body’s natural process to bring it into line with typical physiology. Semenya’s high testosterone gives her a significant advantage – she is, as it stands, unbeatable in her running events by a typical female athlete. Yet it is difficult to escape the sense in which her ‘femaleness’ is implicitly put into question, since the IAAF rule is aimed at preserving the category of women’s competition.

Her supporters argue that she simply has a natural physical advantage – like long legs or extra muscle mass, and that there is no difference in kind between these sorts of physiological advantages, and that of elevated testosterone.  

The ‘categories’ of men’s and women’s sport exist because, in general, men have significant competitive athletic physical advantages over women. Testosterone increases in males at puberty and is thought to be responsible for increases in muscle mass, strength and haemoglobin carrying capacity of the blood, all of which increases strength and endurance, and which ultimately bestows  competitive advantages.

There are, however, some dissenting opinions on that. The available research to date on the question of whether testosterone plays a definitive role in the general advantage male athletes have over female athletes does not provide a definitive answer. (A paper published by Bermon in the British Journal of Sports Medicine in 2017, which claimed that elite women runners with high testosterone levels performed as much as 3% better than those with lower levels, has been heavily criticized by three academics – Roger Pielke, Erik Boye and Ross Tucker – who say that 17-32% of the data was erroneous. That looks immensely damaging to the IAAF’s case.)

It might be tempting for some to think that science could, in principle, provide an answer in the above-mentioned way. But that would be to ignore the vast wealth of feminist and queer theory, which questions the very idea that sex and gender can be made to adhere to a strictly binary classification.

Those arguing with the IAAF for testosterone limits are usually citing problems of competitive fairness in women’s sport which is, after all, a protected category. On the other hand, there is no reason to suppose that the category of women’s sport need be definitive for broader questions about gender binaries.

In a sense it is a practical problem of maintaining the categories of women’s and men’s sport, when some individuals do not neatly slot into those categories. Because of this practical problem, there does seem to be a significant clash between fairness in sport, women’s sport, and inclusivity.

Martina Navratilova recently drew strong criticism for weighing in. She argued that allowing transgender women to compete in women’s sporting tournaments was “insane and cheating.” Navratilova’s comments were called “disturbing, upsetting, and deeply transphobic.”

Semenya is not transgender, but it seems reasonable to segue from one discussion to the other; indeed it has already been noted that transgender activists are closely watching the case for the implications it will have for transgender athletes. As such, a question here that needs teasing out is whether there are any salient differences between born females and transgender females, relevant to the question of preserving fairness in the category of women’s sport.

Navratilova was expressing a view that it is not fair for (non-trans) female athletes to have to compete against male-to-female transgender women who may retain the significant competitive advantage of the male over the female athletic physiology. Does such a view make her transphobic? She denies that she is prejudiced. But the criticism she received highlights the issue of whether questioning trans women’s inclusion in the category of women’s sport is necessarily, of itself transphobic. Can the question of trans women competing against other women in athletics be discussed free from the assumption that a contrary opinion is necessarily a hateful one?

To sum up, the case of Semenya’s testosterone levels currently before the IAAF, and the segue made to trans athletes, raises questions which are not insurmountable, but may never be final or definitively settled. One is the question of the categories of men’s and women’s sport: how to understand them, and to make sure they do what they are there to do, which is to provide the opportunity for fair competition. Another is how those categories do and should relate to intersex and transgender identity and rights, and to medical views of transgender and intersex; and the difficulty of conducting rational and respectful debate about these issues. The IAAF has promised a ruling at the end of March.