Caster Semenya is what we want all athletes to be: incredibly talented

There is nothing particularly “natural” about sports. Let’s embrace it.

Caster Semenya is what we want all athletes to be: incredibly talented

There is nothing particularly “natural” about sports. Let’s embrace it.

There’s something uniquely laudable about an athlete who succeeds in spite of the ruling body of their sport constantly threatening to undermine them. Sporting success usually comes to people with natural gifts who have worked to master the rules of their sport as they exist. This is impressive in itself, of course: but how much more impressive, how much more heroic, really, would it be for an athlete to succeed despite the rules of their sport repeatedly being altered to make things more difficult for them?

Hence the argument that of all the top athletes competing today, the most obviously heroic is Caster Semenya. In the 800-meter race, Semenya has won three World Championships and two Olympic Gold medals (one of those World Championships and one of those Olympic Golds was upgraded from Silver after the original winner, Mariya Savinova, had her results disqualified for doping violations). She also won Bronze in the 1500m at the 2017 World Championships.

But ever since she was a teenager, the South African middle-distance runner has suffered from the dogged and intrusive suspicions of the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF). Following her first success at the 2009 Berlin World Championships, The organization suspended her for months pending the results of a sex verification test; it has also passed multiple rulings to oblige female athletes with naturally elevated levels of testosterone, competing in the 400-meter, 800-meter and 1,500-meter events, to take drugs to artificially lower them. This week, a long-awaited decision by the Switzerland-based Court of Arbitration for Sport upheld the IAAF’s most recent discriminatory ruling against Semenya, although with some doubts expressed about how fairly the new regulations would be implemented, and how well the IAAF had proved its case that elevated testosterone unfairly impacts performance at distances between 1,500m and a mile.

Of all the top athletes competing today, the most obviously heroic is Caster Semenya.

Semenya is naturally hyperandrogenous, meaning that she carries an excessive amount of androgens, or male sex hormones. And she also dominates her sport — in part, yes, because of the natural advantages that androgens like testosterone have conferred upon her (although it must be noted that out of all the women in the world with conditions which have given them naturally elevated levels of testosterone, only one of them is the 800-meter Olympic Gold Medalist Caster Semenya). For her critics, this makes Semenya a threat, her body frequently coded as apocalyptic for women’s sports.

This threat is of course only barely separable from the question of whether trans women should be allowed to compete in women’s sports, often cited as the end of the slippery slope that starts with allowing Semenya to compete sans testosterone suppressants (here the cause celebre has often been the senior women’s cycling champion and transgender athlete Rachel McKinnon, who also happens to be a philosopher who has written articles that have annoyed anti-trans voices in her discipline).

Paula Radcliffe, the British world-record holder for fastest marathon run by a woman, used anticipation of the Semenya ruling as an occasion to speak to Sky News:

“They think that somehow they’re afforded a right that everybody else doesn’t have... you have to look at what you’re doing in relation to the fairness of how that impacts everybody else around you... you can’t just say well I feel like this so I’m going to go into that sport and never mind everybody else that’s already in that sport and is in that category I’m just going to do what’s the best thing for me, I think that’s a kind of selfish way to look at it. It’s very dangerous because there are vulnerable athletes out there who can’t make that distinction, between what’s reality and what’s not and what someone really truthfully stands for and when someone is just trying to troll. It’s a number of athletes and it could be a growing number who have those elevated levels of testosterone and it’s not just about that either it’s the fact that essentially you have a body that has almost gone through male puberty and is stronger.”

Radcliffe faced outrage over these remarks — with all the dull, grey inevitability of billiard balls striking one another in succession, she soon found herself complaining to the press about the “weird, crazy... vicious, aggressive” people criticizing her on Twitter. A Semenya competitor, the Brit Lynsey Sharp, even whined about the testosterone issue after being beaten by Semenya (and five other runners) for the Gold in Rio. In the wake of the latest decision, there is bound to be far more of such comments (here’s one former Olympian’s reprehensible take)

But one voice, weirdly, seems to be missing from the debate, despite the fact that this is a voice who can help us work through a number of the most salient issues that the Semenya case raises.

I’m talking, of course, about Jacques Derrida.

In particular, I’m talking about a 1989 interview with Derrida called “The Rhetoric of Drugs,” in which the postmodern philosopher takes as his starting point the thought that “there are no drugs in nature.” Rather, “the concept of drugs supposes an instituted and institutional definition: a history is required, and a culture, conventions, evaluations, norms, an entire network of intertwined discourses.” When we talk about “drugs,” therefore, we are invoking not a natural fact, but one that has been socially constructed.

This, Derrida claims, helps explain why it makes such obvious ordinary language sense to talk about some narcotic substances (cocaine, heroin) as being “drugs,” when others (most notably alcohol and tobacco) can only be described as “drugs” in a way that will “necessarily imply a sort of irony, as if in doing so one marked a sort of rhetorical displacement.” In a sense, yes, alcohol and tobacco are indeed “drugs” — but it takes a special effort to acknowledge this, just as it takes a special effort to conceive of a tomato as being a “fruit” (in the words of Chris Morris on Brass Eye, alcohol is “not a drug, it’s a drink”).

So why has this distinction arisen? And why are the substances that we code as “drugs” subject to such a vastly different regulatory regime? “The rhetoric of fantasy,” Derrida says, “is at the root of any prohibition of drugs: drugs make us lose any sense of true reality.” The pleasure of the drug user is condemned by society, because it is seen as “a pleasure taken in an experience without truth.” Hence why anti-drug laws, as Derrida points out, attempt to protect society not only from drug use(rs), but from “irresponsibility, non-work, irrationality, unproductivity, delinquency, promiscuity, illness and the social costs it implies, and more generally, the destruction of the social bond.”

And here is a second way in which we can see that there are “no drugs in nature.” Derrida: “This protection of the social bond... is almost always presented as the protection of a ‘natural’ normality of the body, of the body politic and the body of the individual member... In the name of this organic and originary naturalness of the body we declare and wage the war on drugs, the war against these artificial, pathogenic and foreign aggressions.” This is quite despite the fact that “the natural, originary body does not exist” — that human bodies are always, at least in part, served by, supplemented by, and understood through technology.

What could possibly count as a “natural” amount of athletic training?

So what does all this have to do with Caster Semenya? Clearly, it makes sense to suppose that “doping” is something that sporting bodies crack down upon because the illicit drugs with which athletes dope are considered to be corruptions of an originary naturalness, the naturalness which athletes are supposed to thrive within the limits of: to achieve excellence by perfecting, not distorting, whatever “natural” gifts they have been given. But then where, asks Derrida, does the problem of athletic drug-use begin?

Top athletes, Derrida says, seek to “stretch out” their “natural powers.” But why are they allowed to take some substances to help them with this, but not others? Consider the case of the tennis player Maria Sharapova, banned from her sport after testing positive for a drug which had only recently been added to the World Anti-Doping Agency’s listed of banned substances, but that she had habitually been using for a decade. And just why have so many top cyclists been diagnosed with asthma? Is that “natural”?

What could possibly count as a “natural” amount of athletic training? (at what point does humanity encounter weight training, or ice baths, in nature?). Nowadays, Derrida might also have talked of “financial doping”: is there anything “natural” about the extreme disparities of wealth which allow sports teams such as Manchester City or Paris St-Germain, both effectively run as the soft-power arms of Gulf oil states, to gain an advantage over their rivals?

Thus Derrida can help us make sense of the concerns that people express against Caster Semenya. Here we have an athlete whose body is, by virtue of producing a high amount of testosterone relative to the average female body, effectively deemed to be self-doping. Semenya’s very nature thus makes her, in the eyes of many associated with her sport, unnatural: she is a corrupt, illegitimate version of a “real” athlete, a “real” woman. And anyone who doesn’t see this simply cannot make, as Paula Radcliffe claims, “the distinction between what’s reality and what’s not.” (all of this is of course suffused with racism and transphobia, as plenty of other commentators before me have pointed out: the corruption of the foreign, the “fantasies” of the trans woman, “denying” biological reality).

But Derrida can help us see a way out of all this nonsense. Sports, after all, are about the extremes of human achievement: the thrill of watching people who can run faster, jump higher, throw further, swim quicker to an almost unreasonable degree relative to everyone else in the world; stretching themselves to breaking point by competing against each other in a series of disciplines which have been, let’s face it, socially constructed in a pretty arbitrary way. Why do runners run these particular distances? Why is there an Olympic Gold medal on offer for leaping over a high bar with a really big stick, or throwing a sort of large rock? And just what the hell is going on with the Modern Pentathlon? Has there ever been a human individual, naturally born, whose natural advantages would have seen them do really well at athletics, if only they had been allowed to compete in running the specific distance of, I don’t know, 420 meters?

Almost every Olympic Gold medalist will have some pretty unique physical advantages — and on this level, if no other, Semenya can be considered not the exception, but the rule. If we were to recognize this — to choose to celebrate, rather than deny, sport’s sheer unnaturalness — then society might finally come to terms with Semenya’s brilliant nature. The fact that neither the IAAF nor the Court of Arbitration for Sport seem able to do this should be a lasting and damning source of shame.

Tom Whyman, a contributing writer at The Outline, is a writer and philosopher from the UK.