Fair Competition vs. Personal Identity

Dustin Jeremy Ross

Section 9

Blog #2

Semenya of South Africa celebrates after she won in the women's 800 metres final during the world athletics“What is the ultimate difference between a man and a women?” This question is examined in Ariel Levy‘s New Yorker Article “Either/Or.” In the past, gender has been broken into two wholly distinct categories: male and female. However, Caster Semenya–the large and muscular female South African runner who’s gender has come under much scrutiny–exemplifies the insufficiency of these categories in capturing the complex relation between sex and gender and modern sports.

Caster Semenya’s case puts at odds the ideas of fair competition and personal identity. After all, though Semenya identifies as a female, she does have masculine qualities which give her an undeniable biological advantage over her competitors. According to fellow runner Elisa Cusma of Italy, Semenya “should not run with [women]” for she “is not a woman. She is a man.” This quotation is extremely distasteful as it is rife with anger and jealousy toward Semenya’s success; however, if we consider the principal of fair competition and its importance in sports, Cusma’s anger is understandable.

Many people compare Semenya’s hormonal advantage to, for example, Yao Ming’s height advantage in an attempt to justify her right to compete as female. Such a comparison, however, is inappropriate. In basketball, there is no divide between tall and short athletes. In track and field, however, athletes are deliberately split between male and female to make even the playing field. Semenya’s right to race as a female is not in question 4d32ff5a18891ff4861d5ca514eeba7f_crop_north

simply because she has an advantage over her competitors, but because she straddles the line between two distinct categories in racing. Nobody is arguing that Semenya shouldn’t be allowed to race at all, but rather that she is currently racing in the wrong category. Though she identifies as female, her biology is less unequivocal, and it is thus ambiguous which category she belongs in. The question remains, does it violate the principal of fair play for her to compete against other women because of her fundamental biological advantage? We see that Semenya’s right to self identify is inherently opposed with the principal of fair play.

After 2009 (when “Either/Or” was written), Semenya was, in fact, permitted to compete as a female. She went on to carry the South African flag and win a silver medal in the 2012 London Olympics. Her reinstatement was not unconditional, however, as it was contingent on her “have[ing] surgery or receive[ing] hormone therapy prescribed by an expert IAAF medical panel and submit[ing] to regular monitoring.” Semenya was forced to alter her own hormonal makeup–to fundamentally change herself–in order to compete in the gender category with which she had always identified. I find this extremely troublesome. For her entire life, Caster Semenya had identified as a girl, and now she was being told that in order to compete as one, she must change. When comparing photos from before and after her hormonal treatment, the difference is astounding and disturbing. This action, taken to ensure fair competition, is in clear violation of Semenya’s right to self identification, and, surely, will have lasting physical and psychological consequences on her.


The peculiar case of Caster Semenya puts at odds our values of fair competition and self identification. Both of these are held sacred in our society, but with Semenya, we must chose. We must chose between telling someone who they are in order to preserve the sanctity of the game, or allowing people to define their own identities at the cost of fair competition. I, quite frankly, don’t know which choice is better, but if forced to chose, I believe we as a society should value the right to self identification at all costs.

4 thoughts on “Fair Competition vs. Personal Identity

  1. Pingback: A reflection on blogging | Honors Blog

  2. I agree that in this case it is hard to decide whether fair competition or personal identification is more important. First it is difficult to define fair competition and to decide when one’s own identification trumps biology. In almost every environment except for sports, where success is dependent upon physical performance, personal identification trumps anything else no questions ask. Here in sports it is far more challenging. I think asking someone, like Semenya was asked, to take hormones and genetically modify themselves is somewhat extreme. Messing with the natural state of a healthy body is usually highly discouraged and frowned upon, so why should it be done just for this person to be more genetically female? Because Semenya is largely female in this case I would say personal identity is more important. However in other instances it could be harder to determine. What do you say to a biologically male person who identifies as female? In sports this gets sticky.


  3. The difficulty with deciding between ‘fair competition’ and self identification is made even harder than in Caster Semenya’s case, the rules governing whether or not she IS fairly competing are blurry. We still don’t have a set rule for what decides who is male and who is female. Not only are we caught in a gray zone between fairness and self identity but Semenya’s biological sex is also in one as well.
    Even more difficult, we have to consider the fact that for some people, meaningful competition is integral to how they identify (as personal identity almost always extends from sex/gender to things such as livelihood). If we blur the lines of fair competition in order to validate someone’s personal identity, are we risking self identification of others?
    It’s a hard decision to make…even voting in the poll I felt like I wasn’t completely sold on my choice.


  4. Due to the fact that I don’t believe in messing with your biology, I think self-identification is more important in this situation. I like how you laid out both sides to this issue, though. Fair competition no doubt should have great value, probably the utmost, but to make someone change their hormones, is actually possibly making it more unfair. This is because you don’t know exactly how low they are changing her levels and the exact effect it has. Furthermore, the scrutiny and publicity Semenya gets can cause psychological disadvantages that other athletes don’t have to worry about.


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