Unheard voices of racism and sexism in sport: Is anti-doping but another “ism” in fairer clothes?

Published 09 August 2013

Caster Semenya

Sport is often promoted as a vehicle to promote social cohesion. In fact the spirit of sport as defined by the World Anti-Doping Agency’s Code supports this view. What if the very instrument used to promote fairness in sport, the anti-doping policies, is paradoxically the very element that promote a perception of discrimination? 

Because the discussion in this blog has been extracted from a larger body of research work done by this author for his doctorate thesis, there is a particular focus on individual sports. While this author acknowledges that some team sports may have in recent years also faced issues of very public display of racism, the focus of this paper is on the principles behind drafting socially sensitive policies. Due to the limitation of an opinion piece in a blog, in-depth analysis of issues raised herein is beyond the scope of the current discussion. Various other examples and counter-examples may also have been omitted for brevity.

Because issues of discrimination is often hard to prove, and various perspectives abound, several legal review committees around the world have in recent years advocated for a perspective that draws on the victims' experiences and adopt a doctrine that moves away from blaming the victim. In academic research, a similar conundrum is experienced. While the stated intent of various official policies (including those outside the context of sport) does not show an explicit intent of discrimination, the views of those affected often tells a different story. Social science researchers have therefore relied on qualitative ethnographic research techniques that draw on the voices and experiences of the disenfranchised and also on the sentiment promoted in the popular media and culture. Whilst traditional positivists may frown upon such an approach, a large body of academic work has shown it to be valid and of robust credibility in expressing social phenomenon and initiating discussions on social change.

Given this context, this author draws on his several decades of professional and research work related to the issue. He has also benefitted from the experiences of Kristen Worley who has first hand account of events relating to some of the athletes cited in this blog. This blog discusses some of the perceived issues of racism and sexism in sport and frames the narrative from a non-White and female perspective in the context of anti-doping policies. With the limitations so expressed, I ask that the reader approach this piece as something to stimulate reflection and a nuanced auto-ethnographic perspective rather than an authority of a universal truth. The intent is to start a conversation and question if anti-doping policies need to start reflecting the other voices currently unheard in the mainstream.


Sexism and Anti-Doping

While there is no formal IOC rule regarding treatment of intersexual athletes, anecdotal evidence suggests that intersexual athletes must conform to the typical phenotype (i.e. the observable physical or biochemical characteristics, as determined by both genetic makeup and environmental influences) of the female sex through hormonal and/or surgical treatment before they would be eligible to compete against women1. This issue of endogenous levels and sex testing is contentious because of its history. Sex testing may also potentially violate the World Anti-Doping Agency's (WADA) Spirit of Sport (SOS) criterion of "Respect for self and other Participants".

In June 2012, in advance of the London Olympics, the medical and scientific committee of the IOC released the document "IOC Regulations on Female Hyperandrogenism"2. The regulation made clear that the purpose is not to make any determination of sex. Rather, that the regulations are designed to identify circumstances in which a particular athlete will not be eligible (by reason of hormonal/testosterone characteristics) to participate in the Olympics in the female category. The IOC further notes that in the event that an athlete has been declared ineligible to compete in the female category, the athlete may be eligible to compete as a male athlete, if the athlete qualifies for the male event of the sport.

The contemporary focus thus shifts from sex testing to endogenous testosterone testing. A potential problem with this approach is that testosterone level is not a predictor of an athlete's performance and still discriminates against an athlete's right to gender-identification3. The issue with anti-doping measures such as testing for endogenous substances and sex testing is that it highlights an important public perception: social discrimination in sports. Gender policing in sports often takes the form of homophobia4. Sex-testing also potentially leads to discrimination against women who do not conform to traditional notions of femininity5; Sex-testing applies only to women (or individuals that seek to compete in women's events).


Racism and Anti-Doping

Gender testing on the grounds of anti-doping can also be perceived as racism in sports. For example, allegations were raised regarding the role that ethnicity may have played in the handling of Semenya's case, with the South African officials and others insisting that Semenya would not have been treated the same way had she been White or male1. Other examples in the 2012 Olympics that support the social perception of racism and sexism in sport include aspersions of doping cast by a US coach on the Chinese female gold medallist swimmer, Ye Shiwen6, which were reinforced by an established Western scientific journal7, 8; and comments regarding the Olympic gold medallist Jamaican sprinter, Usain Bolt, of doping practice by various high profile individuals in the US9, 10.

The problem of social discrimination and racism (and possibly sexism) in the context of anti-doping in sports can be viewed from several perspectives. Key to these perspectives is this idea that "fair play" seemed to be primarily based on a (White) Western norm; and secondarily based on a (heterosexual) "male" norm. Most international sports are governed by rules of Western nations and Western culture and philosophies. The rules for competitive swimming and all aquatic sports, for example, are governed by Fédération Internationale de Natation (FINA), while anti-doping rules in all sports are governed by the WADA. The official languages (and the inherent culture and worldview) of FINA and the WADA rules are English and French and where the interpretations of the rules are in doubt, the English language shall prevail11-14.

The use of advanced technology in sport (for training and for competition) have so far been mainly in wealthy Western countries15. The continual acceptance of "technological performance enhancing substances and methods (PESM)" such as high performance swimsuits by FINA, hyperbaric oxygen chambers by WADA (even after it was acknowledged by WADA that from an ethical perspective it violated the SOS), and athlete use of expensive pharmaceutically produced supplements are some of the examples. In contrast, complementary and alternative medicines (CAM) is often perceived as an "Eastern" ethos and originated from cultures considered "Eastern".

The use of "CAM PESM" has previously not faced any significant challenge. But this situation may soon change. For example, although Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) preparations used in the treatment of common colds may contain ephedrine and its structural analogues such as norephedrine, pseudoephedrine and cathine (all of which may lead to a positive anti-doping test result if urinary threshold levels are exceeded) are known to the scientific community16-18, hormone-containing CAM remedies were rarely reported. However, a recent paper has reported the use of musk pods (from the male musk deer used in TCM in cases of health conditions requiring cardiovascular and/or anti-inflammatory therapeutics) containing banned Androgenic Anabolic Steroids (AAS) have resulted in positive drug testing results of five females competing in an international sporting event19. Golfer Vijay Singh was also embroiled in the issue of deer musk extract.


Rise of Women and the East

With an increase in participation of non-Western countries in international sports, sporting rules (especially those regarding anti-doping) and their interpretation would need to be sensitive to a multi-cultural environment. This is especially so in a context where Eastern countries are continually improving on their sporting performances at the international level, which may in time challenge the traditional stronghold of Western countries. The rules in sport also need to have a paradigm of "fair play" that moves away from the White male standard. For example, in the context of "acceptable range of normality" for endogenous substance of testosterone, the consensus in sporting organisations seems to be that an individual born and raised as a female, regardless of karyotype, and who has a high testosterone level needs to undergo treatment so as to abrogate any (potential) advantage of endogenous hormonal performance enhancement, before the athlete can compete in a women's division20.

As Crincoli1 explains, the idea of "fair play" in modern day sport seems to imply that individuals who do not conform to the (male, Western) norm can compete only if they do not have a chance of winning: The current lex sportiva and the rules in sport (including FINA, IAAF and WADA) would appear to place a higher burden than necessary on individual athletes who are physically different or do not socially conform to the Western norm.

As Crincoli also suggests, the functional limitation on fair and equal participation in elite competition within the athlete's desired category (e.g. Caster Semenya in the women's events), or tarnishing the results of athletes' success if they contest the ethnic White male supremacy (e.g. Ye Shiwen as compared to Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochtei), unfairly challenges and questions an athlete's exceptional innate talents, social/ gender identity andhumanity. These are contrary to both the stated purposes of the Olympic Movement and broader conceptions of human rights.

Because not just the court of arbitration, but also the court of public opinion judges athletes, allegations of potential doping have a potentially defamatory and negative social effect on athletes. It could also have a mental health impact on these athletes21, 22. Besides being culturally sensitive and non-gender/non-racially discriminatory, it is also important that sports and anti-doping rules need to be based on objective scientific evidence, substantiated scientific social theory, transparent and open to scrutiny. Otherwise, WADA may end up standing for Western/Women Anti-Doping Agency. This would run contrary to its founding purpose.


i Ye won two gold medals at the London Olympics and set a world record in the 400 metres individual medley. The executive director of the World Swimming Coaches Association suggested that such an "unbelievable" feat is suspicious of doping, citing Ye’s penultimate lap in the 400 meters event was faster than the male US world-record swimmer Michael Phelps, and the final lap in the event was faster than the male US swimming Olympic medallist Ryan Lochte both in the same event as evidence for his assertion. This is despite various Olympic officials verifying that all anti-doping tests on Ye were cleared, and the fact that both Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte were more than 20 seconds faster than Ye for the overall 400 metres. Moreover, Phelps’ historic feat of eight gold medals at the 2008 Olympics, and overall 22 Olympic career medals was not considered implausible.


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