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Unethical Behavior in the Sporting Industry: The Caster Semenya Ordeal

The Situation

Over the years, sports have been one of the main reasons people come together. People from various backgrounds meet and compete regardless of their economic, political, or social differences. There have been cases of unethical behavior in sport by participants, officials, or management of the game, but the one involving the disqualification of Caster Semenya on gender grounds is the most notable. A complex system of entities regulates the global sporting industry. Sexual testing of athletes has been an ongoing practice for many years. In 2009, the then International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) disqualified Caster Semenya, a South African marathoner, claiming that her testosterone levels were too high for a female competitor (Mahomed and Dhai 548). To continue competing, she was forced to take drugs to lower her testosterone levels, which was medically unnecessary, causing global outrage about female athletes’ sex testing.

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This incident was a contradiction of Semenya’s gender identity for perceived masculinity based on her appearance and physique. The sex testing was humiliating scrutiny, and the practice is highly degrading and subjective. The World Athletics regulations exposed her privacy and dignity because they did not treat the information with confidentiality, as should be, which was unethical (Mahomed and Dhai 549). As a result, the incident marred Semenya’s public image, and, unfortunately, IAAF later disqualified her because her testosterone levels were too high to compete with females. The athlete subsequently appealed against the Court of Arbitration for Sport’s ruling that hyperandrogenic athletes must lower their testosterone levels medically if they participate in sports. She legally challenged the ruling claiming that it violated human rights and medical ethics, but unfortunately, the court did not withdraw the earlier decision.

Implications of the Incident

This instance became such a big deal because of the gross violation of the athlete’s inherent rights. The policy about female sexual testing is sexist and racist in this case since it was done after Semenya’s convincing victories in the IAAF world championships in Berlin (Mahomed and Dhai 549). The notable triumph was her domination of the 800-meters top-tier, with a gap of over 20 meters from the second competitor, drawing scrutiny from the athletics’ governing body. An immediate sex test was done to verify her identity, and the IAAF later forced her to withdraw from the competitions, arguing that the results indicated she had hyperandrogenism, an intersex condition. The situation escalated when the press and public received this highly confidential and personal information (Mahomed and Dhai 550). Although the IAAF later cleared her to participate in future championships, the controversy grew, and her competitors would ridicule and discriminate against her.

IAAF conducted the investigation unethically, and the basis of the ruling was on sexist and racist grounds. The verdict confuses sex with gender since only the former needs to be used to define males or females in sport (They’re Chasing Us Away from Sport para. 18). Thus, she should have been allowed to take part alongside other contestants in that category. Moreover, the ruling of the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) discriminates against some hyperandrogenism forms, ignoring the nature of the condition. The basis of assessing Semenya’s sexual characteristics was only on having XY chromosomes. This has had a significant effect on modern sport since women with XY chromosomes are not considered real women as those with XX.

Additionally, this instance had a significant adverse effect on human rights and the values of sport. Semenya had worked hard to develop her talent, but she was asked to ruin it by taking medical drugs to suppress her testosterone levels (They’re Chasing Us Away from Sport para. 1). This has been the case for most female athletes, being compelled to reduce their performance through risky biological interventions. Their rights to non-discrimination and equality have been violated, and bodily autonomy, dignity, and integrity continue to be disrespected. Mostly, black athletes have been the target for this unethical sex testing. A middle-distance runner from Uganda, Annet Negesa, was subjected to a similar treatment between 2011 and 2016 (They’re Chasing Us Away from Sport para. 1). Therefore, this instance has negatively impacted modern sport since it is eroding the long-held values.

Suggested Changes as a Result of this Situation

Several changes need to be made concerning this situation to discourage discrimination and infringement on the inherent rights of female athletes. The first one is to ensure standardized sex testing for all competitors regardless of their physique and appearance. For example, some disorders such as congenital adrenal hyperplasia cause high testosterone levels in women, but IAAF does not require them to reduce their performance. Thus, if the rule needs to be upheld, the testing should be consistent across all participants to stop giving other athletes an unnecessary added advantage.

The second reform is to formulate policies discouraging the leaking of confidential and personal information regarding the sexuality of athletes and outlining the consequences of this violation. As for Caster Semenya, the controversy was escalated when the news leaked to the public about her gender identity. It made her receive hostility from the fans and fellow competitors, adversely affecting her emotional wellbeing. Although she was later cleared to participate in subsequent years, the damage had already been done, and policies need to be developed about privacy and confidentiality in sport.

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Lastly, there is a need to form a separate commission to safeguard athletes’ rights. This body needs to partner with the United Nations Commission on Human Rights to prevent unnecessary adversarial treatment of athletes. One major area this entity needs to focus on is the compulsory medical interventions that female athletes are forced into to lower their performance levels. Caster Semenya and Annet Negesa are examples of how elite women athletes are lured into impossible choices to alter naturally occurring hormones. Therefore, there is a need for a parallel commission to safeguard female athletes’ rights, especially female ones.

Works Cited

They’re Chasing Us Away from Sport. Human Rights Watch, 2020, Web.

Mahomed, S., and A. Dhai. “Global injustice in sport: The Caster Semenya ordeal – prejudice, discrimination and racial bias.” South African Medical Journal, vol. 109, no. 8, 2019, pp. 548-551. Web.

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