Caster Semenya's return to the world track and field championships this year is off after a Swiss court reversed an earlier ruling that had allowed the South African 800m Olympic champion to compete.
Track's governing body, the International Association of Athletics Federations, had sought to limit testosterone levels for certain female athletes in middle distance events under the argument that higher testosterone levels gave those athletes an unfair advantage. Semenya had appealed that ruling to both the Court of Arbitration for Sport as well as the Swiss Federal Tribunal.
The latest ruling, which reversed an earlier ruling by the same court, prevents her from competing between 400m and 1 mile unless she reduces her testosterone levels. In 2018, the International Association of Athletics Federation (IAAF) created new eligibility regulations for women with Differences of Sexual Development (DSD). DSD athletes have testosterone levels of 5 nanomoles per liter (nmol/L) or above. The regulations state that if the athletes want to continue competing as women in hurdles, the 400 meter, 800 meter, 1500 meter and mile races then they must lower their levels below 5 nmol/L.
“I am very disappointed to be kept from defending my hard-earned title,” Semenya said in a statement Tuesday, “but this will not deter me from continuing my fight for the human rights of all the female athletes concerned.”
The world championships take place in Doha, Qatar, Sept. 28-Oct. 6. Semenya is the defending world champion at 800m.
— Trace Lysette (@tracelysette) July 30, 2019
Under the IAAF rules, Semenya is not allowed to run in international races from 400m to the mile unless she medically reduces her natural testosterone levels for six months. Semenya has said she will not take hormone medication.
Semenya's lawyers issued a statement that she would continue to fight for her ability to race.
Dorothee Schramm, the lawyer leading her appeal, said: “The judge’s procedural decision has no impact on the appeal itself. We will continue to pursue Caster’s appeal and fight for her fundamental human rights. A race is always decided at the finish line.”
In a statement, the IAAF said: “We understand the Swiss Federal Tribunal will be issuing its full decision on this order tomorrow (Wednesday) and the IAAF will comment once the tribunal makes its reasoning public.”
I’m glad #CasterSemenya isn’t allowed to compete with actual females.
Males should compete with other males.
— Blue (@WasatchBlueMage) July 30, 2019
“I am a woman and I am a world-class athlete,” she said in a statement at the time of her appeal in May. “The IAAF will not drug me or stop me from being who I am.”
CAS ruled on May 1 that Semenya must comply with the new levels if she wants to compete against other women in international competitions.
CAS threw out Semenya's appeal against the IAAF despite saying they had "serious concerns as to future practical application."
That ruling stated that after May 8, athletes with differences of sexual development (DSD) needed to take a blood test to monitor their testosterone levels. This is the only way to maintain their eligibility for the IAAF World Championships or the Tokyo Olympics in 2020.
According to reports, lawyers representing @caster800m said a single judge reversed prior rulings with immediate effect. Earlier in the Day #CasterSemenya had tweeted "First chapter of my life done, looking forward to my second chapter." #SABCNews 2/2 pic.twitter.com/obVfiS1wUX
— Thabiso Sithole (@ThabisoSithole) July 30, 2019
“I know that the IAAF’s regulations have always targeted me specifically,” Semenya told The Guardian earlier this year. “For a decade the IAAF has tried to slow me down, but this has actually made me stronger. The decision of the CAS will not hold me back. I will once again rise above and continue to inspire young women and athletes in South Africa and around the world.”
In a statement about the decision upholding the initial IAAF ruling, CAS said: “The panel found that the DSD Regulations are discriminatory but that, on the basis of the evidence submitted by the parties, such discrimination is a necessary, reasonable and proportionate means of achieving the IAAF’s aim of preserving the integrity of female athletics in the Restricted Events.”
Black bodies - particularly Black women’s bodies - continue to be demonized & restrained by white considerations of “normality.” What’s happened to Caster Semenya is why we must fight against all gender-based oppression because we’re all at risk. https://t.co/8YIQTeYeuL
— Raquel Willis (@RaquelWillis_) May 1, 2019
However, CAS did share concerns about the ruling, singling out fairness, difficulty implementing and complying with the ruling, no real evidence to include certain events — specifically middle distance races—and the potential health risks for athletes forced to comply with the medical requirements.
On the health issues, CAS added: “The side effects of hormonal treatment, experienced by individual athletes could, with further evidence, demonstrate the practical impossibility of compliance which could, in turn, lead to a different conclusion as to the proportionality of the DSD regulations.”
— Cathal Dennehy (@Cathal_Dennehy) April 22, 2019
Semenya has hyperandrogenism. According to the American Association of Clinical Endocrinologists, it is a condition in which the female body produces abnormally high levels of testosterone.
The IAAF defined normal female testosterone levels are between 0.12 and 1.79 nmol/L, whilemale testosterone levels are between 7.7 and 29.4 nmol/L.
In order to lower their testosterone levels to compete, athletes must use a hormonal contraceptive to lower their levels below 5 nmol/L for at least six months. After the six months, athletes must keep stay below that level for as long as they compete. They must also be recognized as female or intersex.
so Michael Phelps, a man with natural physical advantages over his rivals, is celebrated as a "biomechanical freak of nature", but when it comes to Caster Semenya "discrimination is necessary" ? https://t.co/LqfJWo1bMy https://t.co/R1JTay3HzS
— Alex Macpherson (@alex_macpherson) May 1, 2019
When the IAAF released the regulations, some experts were puzzled by the testosterone levels the IAAF deemed as normal. According to Alina Health, the average testosterone levels for women are between 0.52 and 2.43 nmol/L. The average levels in men are between 10.41 and 34.70 2.43 nmol/L. Those levels are different from the IAAF’s levels.
In response to the new regulations, Semenya and Athletics South Africa protested to the Court of Arbitration for Sport.
Two-time Olympic champion Caster Semenya has lost a landmark case against the IAAF - meaning female athletes with higher levels of testosterone will have to medicate if they want to compete. pic.twitter.com/m0mBgsSSFF
— Al Jazeera English (@AJEnglish) May 1, 2019
“I am very upset that I have been pushed into the public spotlight again; I don’t like talking about this new rule,” Semenya said in a release. “I just want to run naturally, the way I was born.”
In 2009, Semenya underwent sex determination testing by the IAAF after she won gold in the women’s 800 meter race at the world track and field championships in Berlin.
South African sports minister @TokozileXasa's statement on Caster Semenya: “You remain our Golden Girl, what you have done for our people and girls is enormous. You have flown our flag high, you have united a nation and inspired a rural girl. For that we thank you Mokgadi.”
— Megha Mohan (@meghamohan) May 1, 2019
Although the testing was supposed to be confidential, reports leaked that her testosterone levels were three times higher than the average for women. The IAAF suspended her for 11 months while medical experts reviewed her case.
The data comes from a 2017 study, which used results from the 2011 and 2013 world track and field championships. The study reported women with very high testosterone levels significantly outperformed women with lower testosterone levels in the 400 meter hurdles, 400 meter and 800 meter races.
Caster Semenya after today's ruling: "I know that the IAAF’s regulations have always targeted me specifically. For a decade the IAAF has tried to slow me down, but this has actually made me stronger. The decision of the CAS will not hold me back. I will once again rise above..."
— Geoffrey York (@geoffreyyork) May 1, 2019
“They cannot use this study as an excuse or a reason for setting a testosterone level because the data they have presented is not solid,” researcher Erik Boye said.
Ross Tucker, a professor of exercise physiology at the University of the Free State in South Africa, who said he believes biology is the main problem, and that testosterone is the main reason men have an athletic advantage over women.
“That’s basically the crux of the issue,” Tucker said. “Do intersex athletes who compete as females have an advantage thanks to testosterone that is unfair, even compared to obviously other recognized advantages in sport?”
Tucker thinks so.
Paula Radcliffe, a marathon world record holder, opposes Semenya competing in women’s sports. She believes that Semenya’s 800 meter dominance is “no longer sport.”
“Girls on the start line know they’re never going to get a medal in an 800m. That’s the bottom line. I get really annoyed when I see these arguments come back that it’s racist or it’s sexist. It’s none of those,” Radcliffe said.
Editor’s note: For the coming 2019-2020 academic year, the Global Sport Institute’s research theme will be “Sport and the body.” The Institute will conduct and fund research and host events that will explore a myriad of topics related to the body.