In 2009, the South African runner Caster Semenya had her gender questioned after she became the 800-metre world champion. The International Association of Athletics Federation, the worldwide governing body for track and field, made Semenya undergo gender verification tests after other athletes complained. Australia’s Daily Telegraph reported that leaked results showed Semenya did not have ovaries or a uterus, and that she had three times the testosterone of an average female. An outraged South Africa embraced her as a national hero and has condemned the international community for invading her privacy. The IAAF has not released the report and has since allowed her to keep her medal and prize money.
Semenya’s case sparked further debate on gender testing in elite athletics. On Tuesday, Feb. 2, the Hart House Debate Club took on the topic.
Debaters were assigned a position. Arguing for the motion, George Trotter and Giorgio Traini argued that self-identification should be the only criteria for qualification, and everything else is arbitrary. “Your height is arbitrary and does not give you a greater advantage over a shorter person,” said Traini.
Erin Fitzgerald and John Ashbourne argued for gender testing. They posited that a fair game would be impossible without limitations and that Semenya had a biological advantage over other athletes, making it impossible for other women to compete. “In order to have a level playing field we need limits. [...] Short people are functionally excluded in many sports and we don’t see a meaningful distinction between this and the other,” said Fitzgerald.
All four debaters represented U of T at the World University Debating Championships in December, where U of T ranked as the sixth-best university debating society in the world.
Attendees were asked before and after the debate whether they support the resolution that gender testing is an unjustified violation of athletes’ rights. Before the debate, 27 voted in favour while 15 voted against and 17 were undecided. After the debate, 32 voted in favour, 22 against, and six were undecided.
After the debate, sport sociologist Ann Travers led a discussion on the broader issue of gender injustice in sport.
“We should eliminate all male-only sporting but maintain women-only sports,” said Travers, a professor at Simon Fraser University. “Playing sports with men is not fun, they never pass you the ball and so in order to compensate for that discrimination, we need to maintain women-only sports.”