Workers Hammer No. 245

Summer 2019


Racist, anti-woman campaign against South African athlete

Let Caster Semenya run!

The following article is reprinted from Workers Vanguard (no 1156, 31 May), newspaper of the Spartacist League/US. As we go to press, the federal supreme court of Switzerland has temporarily blocked the IAAF ruling that Semenya must take testosterone-reducing medication in order to compete in the 800m. The IAAF is contesting this decision.

For a decade, black South African runner Mokgadi Caster Semenya has been hounded by International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) officials, the bourgeois media and many white athletes, who all claim that her allegedly high testosterone levels give her an “unfair advantage”. On 1 May, the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS), a governing body of world athletics, ruled against Semenya’s appeal of the IAAF regulation barring female athletes with “hyperandrogenism” from running in middle-distance competitions. Semenya, a two-time 800-meter Olympic gold medalist, can no longer compete in her race unless she submits to a regimen of potentially harmful hormone-suppressing drugs. Refusing to bow down, she has announced plans to run 2000- and 3000-meter races, which are not covered by the IAAF’s rule.

From their European chateaux, the colonial masters of the sport world, like IAAF president and British “Lord” Sebastian Coe, have carried out their racist vendetta against this defiant gay woman who climbed her way to success from an impoverished village in Limpopo. They have vilified her by insinuating that she is a man, subjecting her to invasive public scrutiny and “gender testing”. As Semenya has declared: “I just want to run naturally, the way I was born…. I am a woman and I am fast.” Two days after the ruling, but before the ban went into effect, Semenya won the 800 at a meet in Qatar. Down with the bigoted and vindictive IAAF ban! Viva Caster Semenya, viva!

The CAS ruling has already forced four black African women out of competition, including the 800-meter silver and bronze medalists from Burundi and Kenya who shared the 2016 Olympic podium in Rio with Semenya. After coming in fifth in that race, Polish runner Joanna Jozwik disparaged the three champions with racist vitriol, boasting that she finished as the “first European” and the “second white”. She grotesquely went after Semenya and others for their purportedly “male” testosterone levels, “which is why they look how they look and run like they run”. Echoing the racist trope of protecting the purity of white womanhood, the IAAF claims it is “protecting” female athletes.

The IAAF regulation, aimed at women with a Y chromosome and higher levels of testosterone to which their bodies are responsive, is based on pseudoscience that has been debunked by numerous studies. The sport czars have announced that they are specifically investigating female athletes from Africa, Asia and South America. The message is that these women excel due to some mythical “masculine” advantage and not their extraordinary talent and perseverance in the face of great obstacles — from lack of housing, medical care and proper nutrition to racist and sexist abuse. No doubt elite athletes in the advanced capitalist countries have plenty of “unfair advantages”, like access to superior training facilities and funding. This is the so-called level playing field.

Women considered by the IAAF to be insufficiently “feminine” are declared “suspicious” and subjected to degrading gynecological, psychological and other tests. The institution’s director of health and science insists that responsiveness to testosterone can be determined from the size of a woman’s clitoris. In 2013, doctors in France were revealed to have coerced four female athletes described as coming from developing countries into undergoing barbaric operations, including partial removal of the clitoris and vaginal surgery. These mutilations of healthy women recall butchers like the American “father of modern gynecology”, J Marion Sims, who experimented on black female slaves without anaesthesia.

Sport officials want to turn Semenya into a human guinea pig for experimental hormone reduction treatment. As we noted in our article defending the South African runner ten years ago (see Workers Vanguard no 942, 11 September 2009), the treatment of Semenya is a modern-day version of the abuse of Saartjie (Sarah) Baartman: the Khoikhoi woman kidnapped by a British doctor in the early 1800s, taken to Europe and exhibited as an object of morbid sexual fascination. Her brain and genitals remained on display in a Paris museum some 150 years after her death.

In the US, where black people are a race-colour caste segregated at the bottom of society, black female athletes struggle against the triple oppression of race, class and sex. Take Serena Williams, whose physique is one of the most scrutinised in the world of tennis. Constantly bombarded by vile insults, she has been compared to an animal, likened to a man and called the “N” word.

Sport in the capitalist world is stamped by all the pathologies of brutal and unequal class-divided societies. From its inception, international competitive sport was about showcasing not only national and racial superiority but also male physical dominance. For decades, sport administrators have forced female athletes to undergo one or another form of “sex verification” — from genital inspections during “nude parades” to chromosome testing — to maintain a strict division between the sexes. While women have grudgingly been allowed to compete in traditionally male sports, they are paid far less, that is, treated as inferior to their male counterparts.

Science, sex and sport

The argument that testosterone is the sole basis for gauging both sex and athleticism has nothing to do with science. Instead, it is about recycling traditional social norms of femininity. Sexual stereotypes flow from rigid gender roles within the monogamous, patriarchal family, which serves as a key prop for the capitalist rulers and their system of exploitation. The institution of the family, in which the subjugation of women is rooted, reinforces backward prejudices and bigotry against those who fall outside what is deemed “normal”. Bourgeois codes of morality enforce sexual conformity, fuelling and legitimising harassment and violence against gay, transgender and gender non-conforming people. Notably, sport officials have imposed hormone restrictions on transgender athletes as well.

All women produce testosterone and require it for a broad range of biological processes in addition to reproduction, such as liver function, metabolism and bone development. For decades, geneticists and endocrinologists have argued that trying to determine sex based on one decisive marker is flawed, given the wide range of hormonal, genetic and anatomical factors involved. However, many natural variations are falsely treated as disorders by much of the Western medical establishment, as well as bourgeois mouthpieces like the New York Times. People referred to as intersex or having “differences of sexual development” are preyed on by medical professionals, subjected to “corrective” surgery and behaviour therapy in their early years.

An extensive 2018 report by bioethicist Katrina Karkazis and science scholar Rebecca M Jordan-Young titled “The powers of testosterone: obscuring race and regional bias in the regulation of women athletes” (Feminist Formations, vol 30, no 2) exposes the folklore surrounding testosterone, referred to as “T”. Citing studies in sport science, they point out:

“T levels cannot predict athletic performance; better-performing athletes do not have higher T levels (baseline or pre-competition); individual variability in response to T is enormous. While higher T has been linked to greater strength, speed, and muscle size at the group level, at the individual level these relationships are inconsistent. Some athletes get little or no benefit from increased levels of T, while others get considerable benefits.”

Athletic performance is based on the interplay between physical traits, brain chemistry, hormone levels, psychology, training and nutrition. A plethora of biological variations confer competitive advantages, from greater endurance to more beneficial body types and more flexible joints, none of which are regulated by sport authorities, nor should they be. A case in point is American record-breaking swimmer Michael Phelps, who has inordinately large hands and feet as well as a long torso. No one suggested he should have surgery or take drugs to “level the playing field”. And no one is about to suggest capping testosterone levels for male athletes. From a genetic standpoint, elite athletes are statistical outliers, whose physical feats redefine the boundaries of what can be achieved by the human body.

It is no accident that the same wardens of sport who ban drugs to enhance performance are forcing athletes like Semenya to take drugs to diminish their performance. They use their whip hand to decree what is acceptable — who is or isn’t a woman, who does or doesn’t have an “unfair advantage”, who is or isn’t a “doper”. Much of the hysteria against steroid use and men purportedly competing as women was first whipped up against athletes from the Soviet Union, a bureaucratically degenerated workers state, and the deformed workers states of Eastern and Central Europe during the Cold War. Accusations flew that their competitive success was attributable to cheating rather than to the enormous advantages of the planned economies of these countries where capitalism had been overthrown.

For us Marxists, the use of drugs for recreation or enhancement of athletic ability is a personal choice and should not be criminalised. A rational socialist society would seek to improve human athletic performance, including through performance-enhancing drugs, which can help athletes train harder and recover faster, while also conducting scientific studies of the potential medical dangers.

For a Leninist party — champion of all the oppressed!

There is widespread support for Semenya around the world, especially among the oppressed non-white majority in South Africa, who see in the IAAF’s dehumanisation of Semenya an expression of their own subjugation and degradation. The South African government led by the African National Congress (ANC) hypocritically hails Semenya, while maintaining the system of neo-apartheid capitalism that perpetuates racial, national and women’s oppression. The ANC and its Tripartite Alliance act as black front men for the imperialists and local Randlords, upholding the superexploitation of the predominantly black working class by white capital.

The legacy of apartheid permeates sport, like all other aspects of life. Cricket and rugby continue to be dominated by the white minority, starting with wealthy schools, which have funding and facilities far above what is available for traditionally black sports like soccer.

Semenya has had to confront the grinding poverty and hideous oppression of women that are a hallmark of a society where backward traditional practices are widespread, from lobola (bride price) and forced polygamy to virginity testing (see “South African government promotes reactionary tribal leaders”, Workers Vanguard no 1031, 4 October 2013). Women suspected of being lesbians are targets of violence and “corrective rape”. The struggle for women’s liberation and for the national liberation of the black masses is inseparable from the struggle for socialist revolution. The perspective of our comrades of Spartacist/South Africa is to forge a Leninist-Trotskyist party to lead the fight to overthrow neo-apartheid capitalist rule and establish a black-centred workers government.

The only way to smash all forms of social oppression once and for all is through a series of proletarian revolutions around the globe, crucially including the imperialist centres like the US. The working class must fight against all manifestations of social prejudice and backward consciousness in order to carry out its historic role as the gravedigger of capitalism. Revolutionary vanguard parties are needed to lead the working class at the head of all the oppressed to that victory. Only then can we begin to build a truly egalitarian world free of bigotry and scarcity. The International Communist League is committed to building such parties as sections of a reforged Fourth International.