“What every major news outlet has failed to report.”
A number of journalists have come out against the recent media coverage of intersex Olympian Caster Semenya – calling the reporting politically correct to the point of being wrong.
Semenya, a two-time South African gold medalist in the women’s 800 meters, made headlines last Wednesday when the highest court in international sports ruled that female athletes like her, who have abnormally high testosterone levels, must take hormone suppressants to compete in certain races, including the 800 meters.
In line with mainstream journalistic style, news reports on the landmark ruling generally respected Semenya’s female identity. However, they also often failed to make clear that Semenya would not be effected by the Court of Arbitration for Sport’s decision if she were not intersex.
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As the court itself said Wednesday, the International Association of Athletics Federations’ regulation on testosterone, which Semenya had challenged, only applies to athletes who legally identity as female but have XY chromosomes like men and genitalia that is neither clearly male nor female.
More specifically, the targeted athletes have an XY disorder of sexual development that leaves them with testes that produce male levels of testosterone.
In a widely shared article published Thursday, LetsRun.com cofounder Robert Johnson wrote: “It’s absolutely mind-boggling that virtually every major outlet in the world reporting the Court of Arbitration for Sport ruling yesterday has failed to mention one of the most important facts of the entire case. Caster Semenya has XY chromosomes.”
The New York Times’ report, for example, only hinted that Semenya is intersex in the 16th paragraph, and even them attributed the relevant scientific facts to the IAAF.
After indirectly acknowledging that Semenya has hormone levels above five nanomoles per liter of blood, the report said: “No female athlete would have natural testosterone levels of five nanomoles per liter or higher without differences in sex development or tumors, the I.A.A.F. has said.”
One of the op-eds, headlined “The Myth of Testosterone,” argued that the hormone has not been proven to boost athletic performance across all sports. As evidence, the authors, who are social scientists, cited one small study of male cyclists as well as the Court of Arbitration’s finding that more evidence is needed to prove male levels of testosterone boost running performance at longer distances.
Claire Lehman, the founding editor of Quillette, was among those who tweeted Johnson’s takedown in frustration.
“What every major news outlet has failed to report,” she commented.
What every major news outlet has failed to report: the rule for suppressing testosterone doesn’t apply to athletes with XX chromosomes, only XY athletes competing in the women’s category https://t.co/waLCBQMgKp
— Claire Lehmann (@clairlemon) May 4, 2019
Jesse Singal, a contributing writer for New York magazine, also shared the article, saying: “You basically cannot trust mainstream outlets anymore on any scientifically complex story that brushes up against culture-war issues.”
You basically cannot trust mainstream outlets anymore on any scientifically complex story that brushes up against culture-war issues. It's incredibly depressing to watch standards slide but that's where we are. Not sure what to recommend to people.
— Jesse Singal (@jessesingal) May 5, 2019
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In addition to calling out bad reporting, Johnson’s LetsRun.com article refuted attempts to explain away Semenya’s biological advantage. He concluded by quoting a sports scientist who wrote that “the presence of the Y-chromosome is THE single greatest genetic ‘advantage’ a person can have.”
The following day, Doraine Coleman, a former Swiss national champion in 800 meters and a law professor at Duke University, published a more detailed defense of the same position in Quillette.
The crux of her argument was that testosterone levels are the best available proxy for sex, and that without distinguishing between male and female athletes, biological women would be unable to win at their own sports, which is the whole point of making them separate in the first place.
“Specifically, if it were decided that eligibility for the women’s category should be based on identity rather than gonadal sex—or if we adopted the theoretical proposition that because some males identify as females, some females have testes—it would be impossible to achieve parity of opportunity in this realm of society, and for sport to meet its associated goals,” she said.
Semenya has been tight-lipped about her condition, and her lawyers on Tuesday sought to distinguish her case from that of transgender athletes.
On Tuesday, retired tennis legend Martina Navratilova, who has spoken out against transgender athletes being allowed to compete in women’s sports, drew the same line. Navratilova called the decision against Semenya “dreadfully unfair to her and wrong in principle” and noted that “the question of transgender athletes remains unresolved.”
However, Semenya’s activism would seem to follow the same basic logic as the transgender rights movement, which has in recent years made rapid social and legal progress in replacing biological sex with gender identity.
As The Times put it in its report on Semenya’s defeat in court Wednesday: “At a time when the broader culture is moving toward an acceptance of gender fluidity, the ruling affirmed the sports world’s need for distinct gender lines, saying they were essential for the outcome of women’s events to be fair.”
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