Both athletes happen to be high-profile competitors whose presence in Rio brings renewed awareness that gender isn’t always a clear-cut thing. Both have a condition called hyperandrogenism, characterized by natural levels of testosterone (which women’s bodies produce in addition to estrogen) that are high enough to place them in the male range as far as international track and field officials are concerned. A legal challenge, however, ensured that both are able to compete in women’s events in Rio.
On Wednesday, all eyes — and the microscopic scrutiny of social media — will be on Semenya, whose condition and its effect on her categorization by the people who run track and field became highly debated after she won the women’s 800 at the 2009 world championships. She was accused of being a man by a competitor who came in sixth in the final and, at the insistence of the International Association of Athletics Federation, the process of determining just how to categorize her — with genetics and other tests — began. Along the way, she endured the indignity of having the details of which sexual organs she happens to have become public.
Semenya comes to Rio by benefit of a legal challenge by Chand to a ruling that, in order to compete against women, she had to either take hormone-suppressing drugs or undergo surgery to limit testosterone production. The Court of Arbitration for Sport ruled in Chand’s favor, determining that testosterone level alone is not sufficient cause for denying women the opportunity to compete against women. The court’s ruling, though, is provisional, giving track’s governing body two years in which to provide further science.
All the scientific study detracts from what is an intensely personal journey for women who want to compete in the bodies in which they were born. At times, the scrutiny was overwhelming.
“If it wasn’t for my family, I don’t think I could have survived,” Semenya told the BBC in 2015. “I was world champion but I was never able to celebrate it. It was a joke for me. When I grew up, I grew up like that. I grew up with boys, I grew up around boys, I cannot change it.
“It was upsetting, you feel humiliated. You cannot control what people think. It is about yourself, controlling yourself — what is in you. But now I want to focus more on the future, I don’t want to go back there. What is done is done.”
Both use a variation of “I just want to be me” in describing themselves.
“I cried for three straight days after reading what people were saying about me” on the Internet, Chand, 20, told the New York Times in 2014. “They were saying, ‘Dutee: Boy or girl?’ and I thought, how can you say those things? I have always been a girl.”
What then to make of athletes like Semenya and Chand? Outsports points out that there’s a greater legitimacy with Semenya, who was a silver medalist in the London Games four years ago. This week, Chand, who was reinstated after being barred from competition in 2014 because of testosterone levels that were reportedly high, finished 59th among the 64 runners in the 100. Outsports goes on to ask whether naturally occurring high testosterone levels are that different an advantage than Michael Phelps’s wingspan or Usain Bolt’s long legs. If all it took were testosterone, wouldn’t Chand have fared better in the 100?
For now, it seems as if the sports world has decided just what to do with an athlete like Semenya or Chand: Let them compete.