Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

Caster Semenya, human irrationality, and fairness in competions

leave a comment »

The last few days, there has been renewed controversy around Caster Semenya (for the umpteenth time).

Caster Semenya is a case that has interested me on an abstract level, because there have been so many proofs of human irrationality around it and a few somewhat similar cases, notably Oscar Pistorius. Again, this is so:

The latest round is a new study (c.f. e.g. [1]) showing that rates of testosterone affect the performance of female athletes—something that even semi-informed people would consider almost* a given without a study. A potential consequence could be that Semenya must undergo a drug therapy to get rid of an “unfair” advantage (or not being allowed to compete).

*There could have been some unexpected quirk involved due to the different way male and female bodies tend to handle testosterone and estrogen, or similar, but that is not very likely in light of existing observational evidence, e.g. that women do not only have a strong advantage from anabolic steroids used as PEDs (testosterone is a natural anabolic stereoid), but, arguably, a stronger advantage than men. Look e.g. at the age and level of the current world records in throwing events vs. the performance level of today.

This is a disastrously wrong approach, which would also imply that other natural physical characteristics, e.g. height, must by analogy be considered: Basket-ball players taller than, say, 8 feet should only be allowed to compete if they have a corresponding offsetting handicap. Ditto sprinters with too high a proportion of fast-twitch fibers. Ditto limbo dancers who are too short. Ditto chess players who have to high an I.Q. or too good a memory. Etc.

That way lies the world of Harrison Bergeron

The correct question to ask is not whether Semenya is an extreme outlier in terms of testosterone and has a corresponding advantage—but why:

If she happens to be an ordinary XX with a (in some sense) normal body, which just happens to have so an unusual* configuration that she is an extreme outlier, then she should be allowed to compete on exactly the same terms as everyone else. She does have an advantage, possibly an immense one, but that advantage is within the realms of fair play—just like a basket-ball player should not be barred merely for being 8 feet tall**.

*Say that she has simply won the genetic lottery—all the numbers just happened to go her way, in that she has a genetic configuration where unusually many stimuli are “on” and unusually many inhibitors are “off”. In contrast, the examples below are more comparable to someone who manipulates the drawing of the numbers.

**However, here too there might be some situation where the reason for the tallness could be a relevant criterion. Possibly, people with a pituitary condition might need a class of their own. (Not implausible; however, this would go against historical precedence.)

If she has gained her high levels through e.g. having male testes*, being a cross dresser or a transgender person**, or deliberately injecting testosterone*** then the reason for her advantage is such that the advantage becomes unfair. (Exactly how to resolve this individual cases is beyond the scope of this post. Whether, when, and against whom genetic configurations that are neither XX nor XY should be allowed to compete, provided that they are otherwise “normal” women resp. men, is something that I lack the depth of knowledge to judge, but they could very well be relevant for inclusion upon deeper investigation.)

*One of the rumors I have heard. The actual investigations made are confidential, which implies that this discussion must be hypothetical.

**Almost certainly not the case, but some gender extremists have actually made demands that biological men who consider themselves women should be allowed to compete against women—which would make a complete mockery of women’s sport.

***Possible, but it is unlikely that she would have gotten away with that for so long with the amount of scrutiny she has been subjected to. However, exactly this accusation has been raised against e.g. Jarmila Kratochvilova (the long retired world-record holder at 800 m, which is also Semenya’s main distance).

Of course, another possible take would be to abolish the separate women’s class in competitions, either entirely or through replacement with some other categorization, e.g. by testosterone level, height, and/or (paralleling many existing sports) weight. Somehow I doubt that the other female competitors would be happy with that solution… (And this could turn out to be impractical.)

The case of Pistorius is slightly different: Here it is clear that if he has an advantage, then that advantage is unfair. In a second step, it is at least likely that he does have an advantage*—and if he does not, then he or someone else will in due time. Determining with certainty when that time has come, however, will be virtually impossible, and there would by necessity be some period of time in which the “blade runners” do have an unfair advantage before being separated—unless they are separated at a time before this determination has taken place.

*Contrary to some naive people who have taken it for granted that he has a disadvantage and have reached his level of performance despite his handicap—rather than because of it.

Advertisements

Written by michaeleriksson

July 4, 2017 at 9:34 pm

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s