Caster Semenya lost a long-fought legal battle against rules to limit naturally high testosterone levels in women runners on Monday. The judges in Switzerland’s supreme court dismissed her appeal against the Court of Arbitration for Sport ruling that upheld the regulations of the sport’s governing body. The International Amateur Athletic Federation (IAAF) is the global governing body for the sport of track and field athletics. The Swiss Federal Tribunal ruled that the Court of Arbitration for Sport could continue requiring female runners to take hormone suppressants so that their naturally elevated testosterone levels were within a certain limit.
Semenya, who hails from South Africa, identifies as female and was judged to be female at birth, but has naturally higher levels of testosterone and XY chromosomes. At 29, she is a middle-distance runner with two Olympic titles in the 800m in 2012 and 2016. She also has bagged positions in three world championships. This judgement means that she will be unable to defend her 800-metre title at the Tokyo Olympics to be held in 2021 unless she takes hormone suppressants.
Semenya released a statement through her lawyers at Norton Rose Fulbright saying she will “continue to fight” for the human rights of female athletes. “I am very disappointed by this ruling, but refuse to let World Athletics drug me or stop me from being who I am. Excluding female athletes or endangering our health solely because of our natural abilities puts World Athletics on the wrong side of history. I will continue to fight for the human rights of female athletes, both on the track and off the track, until we can all run free the way we were born. I know what is right and will do all I can to protect basic human rights, for young girls everywhere,” said Semenya.
“This decision is a call to action–as a society, we cannot allow a sports federation to override the most fundamental of human rights,” said lawyer Dorothee Schramm, who led Semenya’s appeal, in a statement.
Testosterone tests and the public humiliation that follows
Semenya has been publicly questioned ever since she entered into the international sprinting scene in 2009. Her victories at the time raised questions about her sex, leading the IAAF to perform a sex verification test on her. She was also forced to take medication to reduce her testosterone to continue competing. In 2011, IAAF introduced new rules which capped the testosterone limits for women runners. This was dropped in 2015 when Indian sprinter Dutee Chand convinced Switzerland’s Court of Arbitration for Sport that there wasn’t enough evidence to prove that elevated testosterone levels increased athletic performance. In May 2019 the Court of Arbitration for Sports upheld a new rule that caps athlete testosterone levels in women’s events from the 400m through the mile.
Ever since Caster Semenya arrived on the global scene a decade ago, she’s been subject to constant scrutiny, as the media, the public, and her fellow athletes speculated about her anatomy, misgendered her, and argued that she shouldn’t be allowed to race against other women.
She claims that when she first began the medication back in 2010, there was little to no information published on how the contraceptive would affect her mood and health. As a result, she says she was experimented on and treated like a “lab rat” to study how the medication affected testosterone levels. Semenya herself has never publicly identified as intersex, a term that, according to the Intersex Society of North America, refers to a person born with “reproductive or sexual anatomy that doesn’t seem to fit the typical definitions of female or male.”
Why are activists against these rulings
Over the years this ruling has been criticised largely for its unscientific basis and bringing female athletes identity under public scrutiny. It is seen as a gross simplification of a modern understanding of gender and sex identity. Such tests act as a shadow ban on transgender athletes and violate human rights. When Semenya was under hormonal suppressants for five years it caused several problems like nausea, abdominal pain and high fevers. Notably, these hormonal tests are only imposed in women’s sports and no such rules exist in male divisions.
Further, the study on which the current decision is based contains only correlations and is flawed in several ways, and several organisations have called for its retraction on scientific grounds. Even if an advantage exists, then one can argue that there are several other biological advantages which are celebrated. Michael Phelp’s double-jointed ankles and disproportionately large wingspan has been celebrated for years. Thus, it becomes unfair to celebrate some differences and restrict others. As far as testosterone levels go, even cisgender women with PCOS often have two-three times more testosterone than women without PCOS, and 15-20 percent women experience this condition. Under testosterone regulations, do these women also fail to qualify as ‘women’?
Picture Credits : Athletics Weekly
Anureet Watta is an Intern at SheThePeople.TV. The views expressed are the author’s own.