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No Equality in Sport Until We Stop Policing Women’s Bodies

An Olympian Beaten by Caster Semenya Still Backs Her Right to Run

Caster Semnya wins the women's 800m during the IAAF Doha Diamond League 2019 at Khalifa International Stadium in Doha, Qatar, May 3, 2019. © 2019 Jiro Mochizuki/Image of Sport via AP

Madeleine Pape, an Australian Olympic runner, competed against South Africa’s Caster Semenya in the 2009 Berlin World Championships and lost. Those championships are now infamous because they are the moment Semenya won the gold, and because athletics authorities shattered her privacy by openly suggesting she had an unfair anatomical advantage. It was also the beginning of a journey for Pape.

Semenya’s humiliating saga is all too familiar. For decades, sport governing bodies have regulated women’s participation in sport through “sex testing” regulations which target women athletes who, through variations in their sex characteristics, have higher than typical natural testosterone levels. The regulations deny these women the right to participate as women for running events between 400 meters and one mile, unless they submit to invasive testing and medically unnecessary procedures.

For Pape, who is now a sociologist after a career-ending injury sent her to graduate school, her initial instinct was to believe the harmful myths.

“At the time I think it was very easy for me to go along with what the people around me were saying, which was to assume that testosterone confers an unfair advantage,” she says in a new video. Over time, she says, she started to “ask hard questions” about the research that these regulations were based on, and about how these regulations harm the lives of women.

A new Human Rights Watch report exposes this in detail – how the sex testing regulations, including the current iteration linked to testosterone testing, harm women athletes on and off the track. We documented cases of ridicule and harassment, nonconsensual genital exams and invasive questioning about sexual orientation, economic ruin for athletes and their families, and even suicide attempts.

Pape’s journey underscores how the former athlete recognizes the human rights of her competitors and wants to see rule changes that protect everyone.

“I consider women with high testosterone to be my sisters, both on and off the track – to have the same rights as me, both on and off the track.”

Women’s equality in sport is an ongoing project, and movements for pay equity and accountability for sexual abuse are gaining momentum. But excluding some women based on sexist and racist stereotypes only detracts from the bigger goal.

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