How Caster Semenya’s case could alter the landscape of women’s sport

How Caster Semenya’s case could alter the landscape of women’s sport


JUDY WOODRUFF: All over the world today, men
and women compete in high-level athletics. But to keep competition fair, they almost
always compete separately. The world’s sporting organizations argue there’s
a clear, distinguishable line between the sexes. But as, William Brangham reports, the case
of one female South African runner, Olympic gold medalist Caster Semenya, has blurred
that line. For more on Semenya’s case, and what it means
for the sporting world, I’m joined now by Madeleine Pape. She’s a former track and field Olympian. She represented her home country of Australia
in the 2008 Beijing Olympics and in other international competitions. She’s now working on a sociology Ph.D. focusing
on gender at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. And Christine Brennan, she’s a sports columnist
for USA Today and a regular guest on the “NewsHour.” Thank you both very much for being here. Madeleine, to you first. You have raced against Ms. Semenya, and you
have a sense of how fast and what a remarkable athlete she is. What did you make of this ruling saying, if
she wants to keep racing, she has to start taking drugs to suppress testosterone? MADELEINE PAPE, Former Track and Field Olympian:
I was disappointed with the decision by the Court of Arbitration for Sport. I think Caster Semenya has really been on
a journey over the past 10 years, since we first saw her compete on the international
level. And the sport as well has been on a journey. And I think, contrary to how this is being
represented sometimes, there actually is a great diversity of opinion about this topic. And a lot of people have changed their views
about sex and testosterone. So I was really hoping that Semenya would
be the athlete that put an end to these kinds of practices in sport and that the Court of
Arbitration for Sport would make a ruling that reflected the journey that we have been
on as a sport since 2009. WILLIAM BRANGHAM: What is that you think that
the court specifically got wrong? MADELEINE PAPE: Look, it’s difficult to say
because we don’t have a full account of how the court made its decision. I think some — there are some questions,
though, that remain unanswered. For example, why is it that these rules apply
to the 1,500 meters and the mile, even though the court acknowledged that the IAAF doesn’t
actually have scientific evidence to illustrate a relationship between testosterone and athletic
ability in those events. So I think that has gone unanswered. And I also think there has — there has to
be more discussion of the scientific debates that continue to surround this idea that testosterone
has a clear relationship to athletic ability. That scientific discussion is ongoing, as
we have seen in the last few days. WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Christine, the court clearly
ruled that the science is clear. I mean, contrary to what Madeleine is saying,
they argue that the science does show that higher levels of testosterone confers an advantage. But the court basically acknowledged that,
yes, we are discriminating against this woman, but we’re doing it to protect the integrity
of women’s athletics more broadly. What do you make of that? CHRISTINE BRENNAN, USA Today: Right, William. Well, first of all, we cannot say it enough
how terribly Caster Semenya has been treated, especially by the IAAF. This is a woman who is so important in her
country, obviously a woman of color in South Africa. We know our history there. And for her to be dragged through 10 years,
basically, of uncertainty, when she was born this way, is astounding. And the lack of leadership there is remarkable. Having said that, this is a conversation that
I think we’re going to be having for the next 30, 40, 50 years, a conversation about exactly,
well, one, the level of testosterone that we would like to see allowed in women’s and
girls sports, whether — of course, with Caster Semenya, she was born this way. But it easily morphs into… WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Right. It’s crucial to keep saying this. CHRISTINE BRENNAN: Absolutely. WILLIAM BRANGHAM: That she did nothing to
change. This is how she is. CHRISTINE BRENNAN: And I have written columns
defending her, absolutely. But the important point is, there is a larger
conversation. And this may well be — as a journalist covering
the Olympics now for 30-some years, this may well be, William, a story that then jumps
into the world of transgender participation in sport. This is a topic and a conversation that’s
going to be discussed at dinner tables. It’s going to be discussed in supermarkets,
what we want in terms of girls and women’s sports. We have made the classification that girls
and women’s sports are different than boys and men’s sports. We have made that classification. So, now, how do we then pursue these issues,
especially at a time where we’re looking at the science? And I think that’s why this ruling was important. And discrimination, again, against Caster
Semenya is so unfortunate. There is a larger pool here to also look at
and to wonder about discrimination against those athletes. WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Madeleine, as Christine
is saying, we did once upon a time decide that boys athletics and women’s athletics,
boys and girls athletics, should be separate, because there is a desire to have a more level
playing field. Caster Semenya’s case seems to force us to
really reconsider that. MADELEINE PAPE: Yes, that’s right. And I think — I appreciated Christine saying
that. I mean, I think one of Semenya’s legacies
is going to be that she has led us towards this — this conversation and this reflection
on how we feel about sex and testosterone in elite sport. I think, in response to Christine’s — Christine’s
answer earlier, it’s important to be clear that transgender women and women with high
testosterone are subject to distinct sets of regulations, and changes in one set of
regulations doesn’t necessarily have implications for the other. There’s no doubt that we have to have a larger
conversation as a sport about the place and the rights of transgender women, who haven’t
been given a fair hearing in terms of it being a compassionate and informed conversation. But I do think that women with high testosterone
need to be judged on their own terms, and that people shouldn’t be bringing their feelings
about transgender women into this conversation. And I think we can all agree that we have
women’s sport as our top priority, and we want what’s best for women’s sport. We may disagree on how to get there, but we
all want what’s best for women’s sport. I take my lead on this issue from the Women’s
Sports Foundation here in the United States and advocates like Billie Jean King, who have
come out in support of Caster Semenya, and who are encouraging us to see her contributions
to women’s sport as a positive and something that we should celebrate. WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Christine, in elite sports
elsewhere — I’m thinking of Usain Bolt, LeBron James, Simone Biles, Michael Phelps, those
people are, of course, extraordinary athletes, but they are also near physically perfect
for their particular sports. We don’t look at their abilities and think
of it as an unfair advantage. We just think of it as part and parcel of
their greatness. Why do you think we think of Caster’s case
differently? CHRISTINE BRENNAN: Yes. We haven’t made a classification for many
of those categories that you just described. For example, Michael Phelps’ feet, like flippers,
certainly helped him win all those gold medals. WILLIAM BRANGHAM: And his enormous wingspan. CHRISTINE BRENNAN: Exactly, and his torso. So, if we had a classification for foot size
— and I’m not — you — I think you know me well. As a journalist, I take this very seriously. So I’m not making light of this. But, if we did, then Michael Phelps would
be in a different category than some of the other swimmers. But we don’t do that. We have decided — society has decided, our
culture, William, has decided to make categories for men’s and women’s sports and separate
them. We basically have segregation. Now, by the way, transgender rights are hugely
important to me. And I think it must be said, because any time
you delve into what, as I said, is a complex conversation — this has been going on for
a long, long time — you want to make this crystal clear. I, of course, support transgender rights. I absolutely do. The question is, what are we going to — what
do we want to see out of women and girls sports? And is there a limit on testosterone involving
participating in women’s and girls sports? And we have seen, for example, with the NCAA
and the International Olympic Committee and others, they say, if you are going as a transgender
person — and, again, Caster Semenya is not transgender — but to take the conversation
further, if you are transgender, and you are a woman, then you need to take some hormones,
so that your testosterone level is lower. We have seen leagues say this. Maybe there — this will go to the Supreme
Court at some point. And, as a journalist, I plan to cover every
second of this. But I would also say this, that if you think
of Caitlyn Jenner — of course, Bruce Jenner won the Olympic gold medal in 1976, before
I started covering the Olympics, in the decathlon, and was one of the great heroes in sport around
the world, cover of “Sports Illustrated,” et cetera. If, instead of a few years ago, Caitlyn Jenner
deciding to transition, if she had done this back in — from ’76 to ’84, and then become
a woman and come back to the Olympics in ’84 in Los Angeles and competed in the heptathlon,
and I dare say probably won that event. WILLIAM BRANGHAM: As a woman. CHRISTINE BRENNAN: As a woman. We would have had a fantastic and interesting
and riveting conversation about this then. That’s what we’re talking about. And that is what, as a journalist, I see moving
forward. WILLIAM BRANGHAM: It is such a complicated
question, with obviously no easy answers here. Christine Brennan, Madeleine Pape, thank you
both very much for being here. CHRISTINE BRENNAN: Thank you.

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