The Court of Arbitration for Sports Drops the Axe on Caster Semenya
After enduring a decade of scrutiny, discrimination, and violations of privacy, the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) rejected South African middle-distance champion Mokgadi Caster Semenya’s challenge of the controversial 2018 ruling which requires athletes with differences in sex development (DSD) to medically lower their testosterone levels, to be eligible to compete in middle distance events international athletics.
Semenya burst into international consciousness as an 18-year-old with a thunderous victory at the 2009 World Championships in Athletics in Berlin, Germany. Crossing the finish line some 2 seconds ahead of the pack of world-class half-milers, Semenya immediately drew scrutiny from officials and onlookers. In 2009, the IAAF requested a sex verification test as part of their inquiry into her epic win. Semenya was barred from competition while the IAAF conducted its investigation. In a clear violation of privacy and confidentiality, Semenya’s test results were leaked and news began to spread that Semenya had an intersex trait, specifically hyperandrogenism, which is present among 5%-10% of women.
With support from Athletics South Africa and many South African civic leaders, commentators, politicians and activists, Semenya was cleared to return to international competition in July 2010. Many of Semenya’s supporters cited European racism and imperialism and white ownership over the classification of a black woman’s body, as well as the IAAF’s failure to protect the athlete’s privacy as clear evidence of the IAAF’s violations of Semenya.
Caster maintained a relatively low profile in her return to competition in 2010, but regained her momentum and won the gold medal at the 2011 World Championships and the 2012 London Olympics, with the disqualification of Russian athlete Mariya Savinova, who had finished ahead of Semenya in both races.
In 2015, the IAAF’s policy on hyperandrogenism was again challenged following the ruling of Dutee Chand v. Athletics Federation of India & The IAAF which failed to provide evidence that testosterone increases female athletic performance. Semenya continued to dominate women’s mid-distance running by branching out to the 400m and 1500m, and became the first person to win all three of the 400m, 800m, and 1500m at the South African National Championships in 2016. Semenya won her second Olympic gold medal at the 2016 Rio Olympics, and her third World Championship gold in 2017 in London.
In April 2018, the IAAF announced a new rule requiring hyperandrogenous athletes to to medically lower their testosterone, to come into effect in November of that year. The new ruling was applied solely to the events Semenya competes in — the 400m, 800m, and the 1500m, drawing immediate scrutiny that this rule was put in place specifically to target Semenya, who had been undefeated in the 800m final since September 14, 2015. Semenya decided to legally challenge the rule, calling it “unfair,” and saying “I just want to run naturally, the way I was born.” The November deadline of the ruling was extended in order to facilitate Semenya’s challenge.
On 1 May 2019, the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) rejected her challenge, with the new rules coming into effect on 8 May, 2019. The new rule is an attempt to “level the playing field” in women’s athletics, as the IAAF believes DSD athletes have a competitive advantage. Semenya has 30 days to appeal the CAS ruling. It is worth note that the CAS ruling body is comprised of a three-person panel, all of which are White, European men, who hold the fate of a black, queer woman.
Interestingly, part of the CAS ruling stated that the IAAF’s new policy regulating DSD athletes was discriminatory, but stated, “such discrimination is necessary, reasonable, and proportionate means of achieving the IAAF’s aim of preserving the integrity of female athletics in Restricted Events.” Additionally, the CAS noted concerns over the application of the new ruling, stating “the absence of concrete evidence on the advantage higher testosterone gives athletes” as well as the “practical impossibility” of universal compliance. Also unknown is the impact these hormonal interventions will have on athletes, which, “with further evidence, may lead to a different conclusion as to the proportionality of the DSD Regulations.” It is worth note that the CAS committee
According to IAAF President, Sebastian Coe, a British politician and former Olympic gold medalist, the new ruling comes from the IAAF’s “responsibility to ensure a level playing field.” For Semenya, who was born during Apartheid, the playing field has never been level. Raised in the tiny village of Fairlie in the Limpopo province, Semenya began her training in a rural environment without access to modern athletic facilities or footwear. As an out lesbian, Semenya has been the target of bullies and internet trolls who see her sexual identity as further evidence of her invalidity as a “real” woman. Semenya has persisted though a decade of discrimination, injustice, and slander, while competing in perhaps the most grueling event in athletics, and has still managed to come out on top.
An article in USA Today suggested that the ruling made in the interest of “leveling the playing field” could open the door to further restrictions based on innate biology, noting that many elite-level athletes, including the most decorated Olympian in history, Michael Phelps, have exceptional physical qualities that certainly contribute to their success in sports.
“We cannot cheer the biological advantages some athletes have — Phelps again — while penalizing those of others. Every body is different, and trying to parse out what is acceptable and what is not, what percentage of success is genetics and what is training, nutrition and determination, will take us down a dangerous road” — Nancy Armour, USA Today.
The May 1st ruling is already making tremendous waves in the sports community. Tennis star Martina Navratilova extended her support to Semenya, stating the CAS verdict was “dreadfully unfair” and “wrong on principle.” 400m world record holder and fellow South African Wayde Van Niekerk has expressed his support for Semenya, saying, “Caster is fighting for something beyond just track and field — she is fighting for women in sports and I respect her for that.” Sprinting legend and former 400m world record holder Michael Johnson has also been a longtime supporter of Semenya.
A stirring piece penned by former Olympian and competitor against Semenya, Madeleine Pape stating that she, “once believed that higher testosterone was a problem, and now realizes this is an outdated and indefensible position,” and suggests that, “the IAAF could take the lead in creating a sporting environment in which it becomes possible to truly recognize women with high testosterone as the ‘humans, daughters, and sisters’ that our president, Seb Coe, claims them to be at the same time as he denies their right to participate.”
For Semenya to be eligible to compete in the 800m at the 2019 World Championships in September, she would have to begin hormone treatment as soon as this week. However, it is also possible that Semenya will choose to compete in the 5000m and 10,000m, neither events currently require DSD athletes to alter their testosterone levels. Just last Friday, April 26, 2019, Semenya placed first in the 5000m at the South African Athletics Championship, so it is quite possible that Semenya could prove to be a fierce competitor in the longer distances. Semenya has until the end of the month to attempt to appeal today’s ruling.