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

In athletics, who defines a man and a woman? A court has ordered South African runner and Olympic gold medalist Caster Semenya to take drugs to suppress her naturally high testosterone levels if she wants to continue to compete. William Brangham talks to USA Today's Christine Brennan and former Olympian Madeleine Pape, who once raced against Semenya and is now earning a sociology PhD in gender.

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  • 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.

  • Man:

    And no one even close to Caster Semenya.

  • William Brangham:

    Caster Semenya blew away the competition today at an 800-meter race in Doha. It was the two-time Olympic champion's first race since she lost a crucial court ruling earlier this week that put her dead center in the debate over equality and gender in elite sports.

    It was also perhaps her last race before new rules take effect that could prevent her from ever running professionally again. But, today, she said she just wanted to inspire others.

  • Caster Semenya:

    At the end of the day, it's all about inspiring the world, showing the world that it's possible if you believe.

  • William Brangham:

    A hero in her native South Africa, Semenya has drawn attention for years, not just for her blazing speed, but because she reportedly has what are known as intersex traits, which give her elevated levels of testosterone.

    Semenya is not transgender. She was born female. But she's long faced questions about her gender. No one has argued she has cheated, but some competitors argue that higher testosterone gives her an unfair advantage.

    This week, the highest court in international sports ruled that female athletes with elevated levels of testosterone must take hormone suppressants to compete in certain races. Semenya says she doesn't want to do that, and shouldn't be forced to.

    The court acknowledged its ruling discriminated against Semenya and others, but it said it's a — quote — "necessary, reasonable and proportionate means of preserving the integrity of female athletics."

    The secretary-general of track and field's governing body defended that position this winter.

  • Matthieu Reeb:

    The regulations that we are introducing are there to protect the sanctity of fair and open competition, and that's really what we are here to defend.

  • William Brangham:

    But that position has been heavily criticized by many as misguided.

    Semenya was asked about her future after her victory today.

  • Question:

    What happens for you now?

  • Caster Semenya:

    I keep training. I keep running. So, doesn't matter. If something comes in front of me, like I said, I always find a way to come — you know, jump it.

  • William Brangham:

    Of course, it remains to be seen whether Semenya will appeal that court ruling or start taking the hormone suppressant drugs in order to continue racing.

    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:

    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:

    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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