Se­menya and the ethics of luck

There is no such thing as a level play­ing field and all the best ath­letes en­joy bi­o­log­i­cal and non­bi­o­log­i­cal ad­van­tages

Mail & Guardian - - Comment & Analysis - Euse­bius McKaiser

Iwish I was a lit­tle bit taller. I wish I was bet­ter at math­e­mat­ics. I wish I could sing. I wish my body re­sponded more ef­fec­tively to ex­er­cise. But no such luck for me. I have to work with what na­ture has given me and, with a com­bi­na­tion of ef­fort and en­vi­ron­men­tal luck, I can, at best, aim to do as well as pos­si­ble given my ge­netic make-up. It is what it is.

I have been think­ing about the eth­i­cal im­pli­ca­tions of ge­netic luck over the past few weeks while the ir­ra­tional re­sponses to the bril­liance of Caster Se­menya con­tin­ues un­abated.

Given that na­ture dis­trib­utes tal­ents ran­domly and un­equally within the hu­man population, how should we think about com­pe­ti­tion, es­pe­cially in competitive and pro­fes­sional sport? What truly do we mean by “fair com­pe­ti­tion” or “a level play­ing field”?

We need to slay the myth that com­pe­ti­tion can be gen­uinely and max­i­mally fair. We can­not fid­dle with the ge­netic dif­fer­ences be­tween individuals and that im­plies an in­her­ent lack of level play­ing fields.

We do not stop ath­letes from com­pet­ing in pro­fes­sional sport on ac­count of su­pe­rior bi­o­log­i­cal propen­sity to sport­ing bril­liance. We ac­cept it as a fair ad­van­tage to be en­dowed with genes su­pe­rior to your com­peti­tors.

In a sport­ing code like chess, for ex­am­ple, one thinks of uniquely gifted ath­letes such as Bobby Fis­cher and Garry Kas­parov. They are, in the his­tory of the sport, in a league of their own.

There have been count­less other bril­liant chess play­ers, in­clud­ing world chess cham­pi­ons and su­per­grand­mas­ters, whom chess nerds have ad­mired and stud­ied for ages and failed to mimic suc­cess­fully.

But no one ever thought that Fis­cher or Kas­parov should play chess against their op­po­nents with an im­posed penalty such as, say, start­ing their games with only four pawns in­stead of the reg­u­la­tion eight.

The thought of set­ting up a world cham­pi­onship ti­tle match be­tween Kas­parov and some­one like Bri­tain’s Nigel Short by giv­ing Kas­parov a hand­i­cap is pre­pos­ter­ous.

We sim­ply ac­cept that part of the thrill of watch­ing lesser mor­tals play Kas­parov is to see whether any­one can suc­ceed in scor­ing a draw, let alone a win or two. We can­not con­ceive of the pos­si­bil­ity of Kas­parov los­ing a match un­til the next rare ge­netic freak comes along and shows up yes­ter­year’s un­beat­able hero.

This is true across all competitive ac­tiv­i­ties. I did bet­ter than my class­mates at maths Olympiads but I was way too weak at maths to ever stand a chance of go­ing past the sec­ond round, let alone mak­ing the South African maths Olympiad team. I sim­ply lacked the ca­pa­bil­ity to be com­pe­tent at maths be­yond a cer­tain level. I might have scored an A for ma­tric higher grade but I had to drop out of sec­ond-year maths at univer­sity because I had reached my ceil­ing of math­e­mat­i­cal com­pe­tency, set­tling for law and phi­los­o­phy in­stead, dis­ci­plines that I en­joyed and ex­celled at.

No one would sug­gest that my com­peti­tors in a school maths Olympiad should not have been al­lowed to com­pete because their ge­netic luck meant they had an unfair ad­van­tage over us lesser mor­tals.

It’s sim­ply tough luck that in a race you en­ter you have to over­come in­fe­rior ge­netic pro­files to beat the bi­o­log­i­cal odds against you, some­how. We ac­cept this to be so because we can­not undo the ran­dom dis­tri­bu­tion of tal­ents of bi­ol­ogy.

Se­menya, like a Kas­parov, has been given, ran­domly, a body that can do things that other bod­ies can­not do. That is sheer ge­netic luck.

It is not a rea­son­able ba­sis to dis­qual­ify her from com­pet­ing with other women and it is not a rea­son­able ba­sis to de­lib­er­ately and ar­ti­fi­cially re­duce the ef­fect of her su­pe­rior bi­o­log­i­cal make-up.

We watch oth­ers take her on and, as spec­ta­tors, with pop­corn in hand, we wait to see who might come along among the lesser mor­tals and defy the bi­o­log­i­cal odds to beat her de­spite her nat­u­ral tal­ent.

So any at­tempt to re­duce her testos­terone lev­els is akin to ask­ing Kas­parov to re­move a piece from his start­ing po­si­tion be­fore he plays another grand­mas­ter.

In other words, it’s coun­ter­in­tu­itive and in­con­sis­tent with what we rou­tinely ac­cept about how luck fea­tures in competitive sport, and there­fore a grossly unfair in­ter­ven­tion in sport by the reg­u­la­tory au­thor­i­ties.

It is also cu­ri­ous how the dis­cus­sion about Se­menya con­ve­niently fo­cuses only on her body as though your bi­o­log­i­cal make-up alone de­ter­mines your chances of win­ning a com­pe­ti­tion or dom­i­nat­ing a sport.

There is a lot of non­bi­o­log­i­cal luck that can also heav­ily influence sport­ing suc­cess. We ac­cept even these as fair ob­sta­cles that the un­lucky ones have to over­come some­how.

So­viet Rus­sia is an in­struc­tive his­tor­i­cal ex­am­ple. It is no co­in­ci­dence that the ma­jor­ity of the world’s pro­fes­sional chess play­ers are Rus­sian. The state in­vested heav­ily in chess schools and train­ing pro­grammes. It was de­ter­mined to show up the West by dom­i­nat­ing the sport.

The same was true about much of their in­vest­ment in the 20th cen­tury in sport­ing codes such as gym­nas­tics and even in art forms like clas­si­cal mu­sic. It would be pre­pos­ter­ous to claim that Rus­sians are in­nately more suited to chess than, say, Africans. But many Rus­sian ath­letes were ben­e­fi­cia­ries of the geopo­lit­i­cal dy­nam­ics of the Cold War era. In pur­suit of jin­go­is­tic ends on the world stage, So­viet Rus­sia threw ev­ery avail­able re­source at ath­letes just to stop Amer­i­cans from beat­ing them.

Where you are born is not up to you. It is an ac­ci­dent of biog­ra­phy. But where you are born can be a crit­i­cal de­ter­mi­nant of how likely you are to de­velop your in­nate po­ten­tial. If you’re born into the “wrong” re­gion, coun­try or fam­ily, even good genes can mean very lit­tle.

But we do not think of ways to re­duce the re­source ad­van­tages of ath­letes from the Global North at international sport­ing events such as the Olympics. We take it as tough luck that many ath­letes from the Global South who go to an international event have to over­come the dis­ad­van­tages of hav­ing fewer re­sources than their coun­ter­parts elsewhere when pre­par­ing for international com­pe­ti­tion.

Iron­i­cally, Se­menya has many non­bi­o­log­i­cal dis­ad­van­tages that many of her com­peti­tors do not have. She grew up in poverty. She did not have ac­cess to ex­cel­lent fa­cil­i­ties and world-class coach­ing as a child.

She also has to deal with the emo­tional and psy­choso­cial pain of be­ing con­stantly “oth­ered” because her body doesn’t look like our idea of what a woman is sup­posed to look and sound like. Many of us would be for­given for de­vel­op­ing men­tal ill­ness in the face of such re­lent­less pub­lic dis­sec­tion of our body. But Se­menya does not get sym­pa­thy from her haters for the ob­sta­cles she has had to over­come that were not of her mak­ing. But they hate her for bi­o­log­i­cal luck.

How do you sub­tract Se­menya’s non­bi­o­log­i­cal dis­ad­van­tages from all her bi­o­log­i­cal ad­van­tages? It’s a silly ques­tion pre­cisely because we do not move through the world as hu­man ex­pres­sions of math­e­mat­i­cal equa­tions to be solved for “fair play”.

Pro­fes­sional ath­letes are sim­ply ex­pected to work with all their com­bined ad­van­tages and dis­ad­van­tages, both bi­o­log­i­cal and non­bi­o­log­i­cal, and com­pete as best they can.

The only rea­son Se­menya is ex­pected to feel guilty about her body is because of pol­i­tics within the International As­so­ci­a­tion of Ath­let­ics Fed­er­a­tion. Some­one is sim­ply jeal­ous of her bril­liance and find­ing spu­ri­ous jus­ti­fi­ca­tions to re­duce her domination. It is unfair and mad.

Fi­nally, some­one may ask: “But why do we sep­a­rate men and women, Euse­bius, if we do not care for some no­tion of fair com­pe­ti­tion?”

That is true. We should ask whether it makes sense at all to make this dis­tinc­tion in all sport­ing codes. It’s not ob­vi­ous that we are right just because we have al­ways per­sisted with gen­dered clas­si­fi­ca­tion.

I don’t have a de­fin­i­tive view on this matter. But I think we can agree that, just because men and women com­pete sep­a­rately in pro­fes­sional sport, it does not mean that fur­ther fid­dling with the make-up of the re­spec­tive groups of com­peti­tors is fair.

Let Se­menya en­joy her bi­o­log­i­cal luck just as she has to over­come her non­bi­o­log­i­cal ob­sta­cles. It’s called life.

Some­one is sim­ply jeal­ous of her bril­liance and find­ing spu­ri­ous jus­ti­fi­ca­tions to re­duce her domination.

It is unfair. It is mad

As chance would have it: Caster Se­menya, pic­tured win­ning gold in the 1 500m at the 2018 Com­mon­wealth Games, should not be pe­nalised for what na­ture gave her. Photo: Cameron Spencer/Getty Images

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