Does sex matter in sport?

Our first ThinkIn in partnership with slow news purveyors Tortoise revolved around the topic of whether sex matters in sport, drawing particularly on the case of Caster Semenya. The lively conversation covered everything from fairness in elite sport to questions on how we define biological sex. Tortoise Members’ Editor Liz Moseley sums up the insightful discussion below.


When the starter fires the gun we all want to believe that the race is fair, otherwise what’s the point? But sport is never fair. Everything that happens before that – the training, the psychology, the access to facilities, the funding – counts. It’s just that we can’t see it on the track.

The fun of elite sport is the spectacle of extraordinary people doing extraordinary things. It seems a shame to limit that spectacle by legitimising some forms of extraordinariness and outlawing others. If we accept that in professional sport, a sex-based set up is appropriate – “without women’s sport, women would have nothing” – there could be merit in a further, paralympic style banding for some sporting events, reflective of a broader spectrum of physiological attributes than biological sex. But to me, that dodges the heart of the question.

Because the role of elite athletes, and the institutions that represent and govern them, is bigger than what happens on the track. They are beacons of what people can do but also exemplars of what people with power do to people with less of it. How they behave and the words they use reverberate down to the rest of us.

It’s well understood and accepted these days that gender – that is, self-identified, performative, constructed – isn’t binary. Medical science has concluded that biological sex isn’t either. But legally (at least in most countries) and in sport, we still have to fit into one box or the other. So I did not envy the three-person CAS panel their task of evaluating the IAAF ruling on Caster Semenya on the grounds of discrimination, legitimacy and proportionality. These are not easy questions.

I was struck that CAS deemed the ruling proportionate because Semenya could comply with it by taking a pill, rather than by undergoing a more invasive – presumably surgical – procedure. It seems to me that enforced interference of any kind into someone else’s body is invasive, whether it happens in surgery or trackside. The regulation of women’s bodies is on the rise in other spheres too. These are fundamentals on which we cannot afford to compromise.

Given how much people talk about Caster Semenya, it’s easy to forget how much we don’t – can’t, shouldn’t – actually know about her. She has become symbolic of society’s squeamishness about the interplay between biological sexual identity, legal sexual identity and gender. Reasonable discussions about sporting performance and fairness are hampered by the dogged persistence of the gender binary myth, and the ideology of limitation and control which lurks beneath it. That these things are still so hard to talk about is itself dispiriting.

To begin to answer this question – does sex matter in sport? – I’m inclined to turn to universal principles as a compass. Inequality is a fact of life. Common sense dictates, surely, that people who are different shouldn’t be disadvantaged by default. But difference is a function of the ideology of that which is considered ‘normal’. Caster Semenya is different in a way that threatens that ideology. So, it would seem, are many other women of colour who happen to be brilliant sportspeople. Take the treatment of other BAME female athletes, Serena Williams and Dutee Chand, as cases in point. So yes sex matters in sport. It just doesn’t matter as much as humanity, decency and respect.