For 10 years, South African runner Caster Semenya has had to prove she’s a woman to the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), and make the case that her genetic makeup shouldn’t be altered in order for her to compete.
On Wednesday, Semenya lost her appeal at the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS), the highest sports judiciary body, against the IAAF’s new rules regulating the testosterone levels for athletes with a difference in sex development (DSD).
Since winning the gold medal in the 800m at the World Athletic Championships in 2009, Semenya, who has hyperandrogenism, a condition characterized by excess levels of male sex hormones such as testosterone, has been locked in a battle with the IAAF over whether her increased levels of testosterone make her ineligible to compete in the women’s sport.
What does this week’s ruling mean for Semenya, and for other female athletes?
What was the case about?
In April 2018, the IAAF announced new rules that would require all female DSD athletes to reduce and maintain their testosterone levels to 5 nmol/L or less in order to compete in athletic events from 400m to a mile-long. The rule becomes effective May 8.
It wasn’t the first time this rule was introduced. In 2009, Semenya was subjected to “sex verification” testing and deemed ineligible to compete for 11 months. Though she was cleared after taking hormone therapy, the IAAF announced in 2011 that women with hyperandrogenism, like Semenya, would have to take hormones to lower their natural testosterone levels.
Following the clearance of Indian sprinter Dutee Chand in 2015, who appealed the IAAF rule over her indefinite ban due to elevated testosterone levels, the CAS suspended the IAAF’s policy for two years, stating that there wasn’t enough scientific evidence to prove that excess testosterone in a female athlete gave her an advantage over other competitors.
So what did this new ruling determine?
On Wednesday, the CAS announced that even though it agreed that the IAAF’s policy on testosterone levels was “discriminatory” to female athletes like Semenya, the policy was was “necessary, reasonable and proportionate” in order to maintain fair competition among female athletes. It also ruled that discrimination in sport is legal provided it is justified.
Two of the three arbitrators, who had deliberated for more than two months, agreed with IAAF’s argument that an excess of testosterone gave female athletes an advantage in terms of size and strength.
“I know that the IAAF’s regulations have always targeted me specifically,” Semenya said in a statement from her lawyer. “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.”
Semenya has 30 days to appeal to the Swiss Federal Tribunal.
Who is affected by sex testing?
Here’s where the gender divide is ever present: only women are sex tested.
While men are tested for synthetic hormones — that is, doping — they aren’t subject to invasive, excessive sex testing like women, who must undergo chromosome and testosterone level checks. In other words: men are believed to be men.
For example, the Olympics still sex-tests female athletes, not males. And this has a legacy in sporting events. In 1966, the IAAF launched the humiliating “nude parade,” in which doctors examined the genitals of female athletes. And in 1968, the International Olympic Committee started mandatory sex testing of female athletes.
Today, women who have differences in sex development — those who are intersex or have hyperandrogenism, like Semenya — are most targeted by sex testing, and have either been banned, suspended or forced to take hormones to suppress their natural testosterone or to remove internal testes. The IAAF claims this is out of fairness for other female competitors. But singling out testosterone as the only concern when there are a range of variables that contribute to the success or strength of an athlete is problematic, and it’s not scientifically proven. A review by Harvard University endocrinologists found that it was unclear whether high testosterone in women, as well as intersex women, “confers any competitive advantage.”
What is the effect of this ruling on Semenya?
Semenya has won the last 29 of her 800m races and has not yet said if she will compete in the world championships in September in Doha, Qatar. But the ruling means she will have to suppress the naturally occurring levels of testosterone in her body before she’s cleared to race again.
Ross Tucker, a sports scientist who worked on Semenya’s appeal, says suppressing her testosterone means she will run 800m around seven seconds slower. Tucker says Semenya may need to choose a different sporting event such as the 5,000m where IAAF’s policy doesn’t apply.
How are people responding?
What’s happening to Semenya is part of a larger skepticism surrounding muscular, successful female athletes. And as Janice Forsyth, a professor in the kinesiology department at Western University, says in an interview with CBC, it has “less to do with keeping sports fair than it does with social control of women and women’s bodies.”
The wins by muscular, strong women in the 1950s and ’60s launched suspicions over whether these women, who did not fit the Western ideal of femininity, were cheaters. This was already happening in the 1920s, when Olympic officials started on-site, suspicion-based tests on physically dominant female athletes.
And Semenya is not just a woman who is muscular; she is also Black, queer, masculine-presenting and part of a wave of successful women from the global south.
btw, while much of the obsessive scrutiny of Caster Semenya is based on her blackness, it's worth noting she's also a proud queer woman; here she is with her wife. And yeah, I don't doubt that some of the "masculinity" criticisms come out because she's gay. pic.twitter.com/TKUAjgghvW
— Another Angry Woman (@stavvers) May 1, 2019
“All of these [efforts] seem to coincide with the recent dominance by women from Sub-Saharan Africa in certain track and field events, and that wasn’t the case before,” Katrina Karkazis, a Stanford University bioethicist who specializes in intersex issues, told CBC. “That is one way this is racialized. Who is winning those events? Who has won historically?”
In the same article, University of Toronto professor Bruce Kidd says that it’s not hard to see how race plays a role in who the IAAF has chosen to go after. “They [the IAAF] have identified seven events where they think there is a correlation [between testosterone levels and performance]. Two of them are the pole vault and hammer throw and they have not made them part of this new rule, and those are events that are dominated by white women,” Kidd said. “They have targeted the mile, an event that is currently dominated by Black women. And the mile isn’t even part of their study. It’s hard not to draw the conclusion this is a racist, targeted test.”