The Recent Ruling Against Olympian Caster Semenya Is Unfair

Here’s why

Katherine Singh
Caster Semenya at the IAAF World Athletics Championships
Caster Semenya after winning gold in the Women’s 800 Metres at the 16th IAAF World Athletics Championships on August 13, 2017. (Photo: Getty Images)

Sports fans and supporters of women everywhere woke up today to some pretty bad news: Olympic runner Caster Semenya has lost her landmark legal case against the International Association of Athletics Federation‘s (IAAF) new rules on female classification, which means the South African athlete will have to take medication to reduce her level of testosterone if she wants to run internationally at events between 4oo metres and a mile (her athletic beat).

In a media statement released on May 1, The Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS), announced that they were dismissing Semenya and Athletics South Africa’s requests for arbitration, which they’d hoped would declare new regulations—the“IAAF Eligibility Regulations for Female Classification (Athletes with Differences of Sex Development)”—invalid. The regulations were meant to come into effect on November 1, 2018.

But, CAS did state in their ruling that, while “the Claimants were unable to establish that the… regulations were ‘invalid,'” the regulations *are* discriminatory.

There’s *a lot* to unpack here. Below, everything you need to know about Semenya, the ruling and why this decision is seriously unfair and harmful AF.

Who is Caster Semenya?

If the name Caster Semenya sounds familiar to you, it’s because you’ve definitely heard it before. While Semenya is lighting up our timelines *now* with the recent announcement, she’s been working hard—and facing serious adversity—for almost a decade.

The double Olympic champion first came landed on our radar in August 2009, when, at just 18, she won gold at the world championships in Berlin. After her win, a salty fellow competitor called her a man, and Pierre Weiss, the then-general secretary of the IAAF said, “She is a woman, but maybe not 100%.”

It was then revealed that the athlete had been the subject of a gender verification process, and has a condition called hyperandrogenism. The condition means that Semenya’s body *naturally* produces a higher level of testosterone than other women. This finding led to Semenya being declared ineligible to compete for 11 months. When Semenya was *finally* cleared to compete again, in July 2010, rumours swirled that she had undergone hormone treatment (an assumption that has not been explicitly verified).

Less than a year later, in April 2011, the IAAF announced that it was adopting new rules and regulations that would govern the eligibility of women like Semenya, arguing that higher levels of testosterone gave these athletes an unfair advantage. The decision meant that female athletes with testosterone levels above a certain level—10 nmol/L—would now be required to take hormones to lower their level in order to compete.

Then, in August 2018, two years after Semenya won gold in the 800m at the Rio Olympics (after a few tough years in between), the IAAF announced yet another set of new rules that would force female athletes to reduce and maintain their testosterone levels to no greater than five nmol/L  if they wanted to compete in events ranging from 400m to a mile—which again, is Semenya’s beat.

In February 2019, Semenya began her legal challenge against the IAAF’s new rules, bringing the issue to the higher body—The Court of Arbitration of Sport.

What’s the IAAF’s issue?

As the governing body for track and field, the IAAF has claimed that Semenya’s condition gives her an unfair advantage against other female competitors. According to The Guardian, during the five-day CAS hearing in April, the IAAF argued that the policy was intended to create a level playing field for all women, so that success was based on talent and hard work. Per The Guardian, a key part of the IAAF’s case was that more than 99% of females have around 0.12-1.79 nmol/L of testosterone in their bodies. Athletes with differences of sexual development (DSD), like Semenya, are in the male range of 7.7-29.4 nmol/L. They made the argument that female runners with high testosterone levels have an unfair advantage.

The IAAF is *not* claiming that athletes with hyperandrogenism are not female. Instead, it’s aiming to clarify whether women with this condition are “too masculine” to compete with other women.

Specifically, the ruling means that all DSD athletes will have to reduce their testosterone to below five nmol/L for at least six months if they want to compete internationally at distances ranging from 400m to a mile, starting May 8.

Okay, does it put her at an advantage?

That question, says Dr. Janice Forsyth, an associate professor and the former Director of the International Centre for Olympic Studies at Western University, is too general. “There are so many different variables to responding to that question that you  can’t respond to it in a general sort of way. Of course, if under certain conditions, we know testosterone can lead to performance enhancement if you take it.” But, Forsyth emphasizes, that’s the thing: “These are naturally occurring levels of testosterone. ” In essence, she can’t help it. This is *her* natural—so why should she be punished for it?

In a May 2018 study on the harms of regulating women’s testosterone in sport, Professor Katrina Karkazis noted that the claim that higher natural testosterone provides some women with a competitive edge over others is “profoundly contested.”

Karkazi, a professor and senior research fellow at Yale University, examines and challenges the entrenched scientific and medical beliefs and gender, often relating to sport, and has written extensively on the topic of testosterone, “sex testing” and sports regulations that ban athletes—including Semenya specifically.

“You can’t say that women with higher testosterone perform better than women with low testosterone,” Karkazis says. Pointing to a study done by the IAAF that looked at the relationship between testosterone and performance across multiple track and field events, she says, “their evidence shows that there are certain events where people in the lower testosterone group performed better than people in the higher testosterone group.”

According to Karkazi, that outcome fits her own understanding of the relationship between testosterone and athleticism. “It is not always people with the highest levels who perform better… because [testosterone] in and of itself is not the only or even the most important determinant of athletic performance.”

FYI, there are *a lot* of misconceptions around testosterone

Also, hello—testosterone is not a male-only hormone. As Karkazi wrote in an article for The New York Review Daily, we have long lived with the idea that testosterone was the “male sex hormone,” but just isn’t true.

Expanding on the notion in a February 2019 Twitter thread related to Semenya, Karkazi wrote, in part: “So many mentions of testosterone as the male sex hormone related to Caster Semenya’s case. It’s inaccurate to call T the ‘male sex hormone.’ […] Calling T the male sex hormone signals that T is restricted to men and is a foreign—and potentially  dangerous—substance in women’s bodies. But women also produce T and require it for healthy functioning.”

Misconceptions about testosterone and its role have remained, in large part, thanks to a lack of literature and interrogation of the subject, something that Karkazi says has helped to cement it in culture as something entirely male.

“Not only is it not correct that it’s a male hormone, it’s also not correct that it’s the sex hormone,” she says. “[Combine] the two problematic claims together and it creates a bedrock on which this kind of regulation can rest, because it sets the stage for the idea that it doesn’t belong in the women, that it’s problematic in women, that it makes women masculine.”

But FYI, everyone—including women—need and have it. “For example, our heart, our lungs, our brains, they all have testosterone receptors. So, it’s not just involved in sex trade to reproductive function, it’s involved in far more than that.”

 And what about this “sex testing”?

There’s also another reason misconceptions persist. In part, they can be traced to the theory behind sex testing. The IAAC have thrown the term around a lot since challenging Semenya, but the practice has a long history in international sports, stemming from (of course) fragile masculinity.

“In the early 1900s, late 1800s, [sport] was mainly controlled by men who believed that there was no way that women should be competing in sport that made them look manly,” Forsyth says. “They thought it would hurt the reproductive system, so they were [ordering sex testing] under the guise of protecting female athletes from hurting themselves.”

Over the years, the rationale for sex-testing changed. As female athletes’ confidence and prowess grew, spectators began to wonder if these fast, powerful, badass female athletes could even be women. This lead to the questioning of several female athletes in the late 1930s, including runners Stella Walsh of Poland and Helen Stephens of the United States and German high-jumper Dora Ratjen.

“Now we’re at the point in time where they’re talking about it being fair for other female athletes,” Forsyth says of the evolution. “So it’s always been there, it’s just the reasons for doing it have changed.”

A lot of people are calling BS

Critics of the IAAF aren’t just angry about the unfair treatment Semenya has experienced; they’re also against the idea of sex testing as a whole. Forsyth, for her part, wasn’t surprised when she heard about the ruling, having little faith in the governing system. “Basically, the so-called experts have determined that the ruling was discriminatory, but they felt there was no other way to uphold the sport system and their idea about fairness,” she says. “So when I hear that and when I see that, that tells me that the system is broken and it doesn’t work.”

Especially because the ruling is pretty Semenya, and female, specific

Semenya isn’t the only women athlete to undergo this scrutiny. In 2015, Indian sprinter Dutee Chand came under similar scrutiny. And just two weeks ago, Olympic silver medallist Francine Niyonsaba of Burundi confirmed she also has hyperandrogenism. But, unlike Semenya, Chand will still be able to compete. And not because her levels are any lower. The regulations just don’t affect her events.

This ruling seems even more unfair when we consider how certain (*ahem* male *ahem*) athletes are heralded for their “abnormal” traits. Exhibit A: Michael Phelps. The record-breaking Olympic swimmer is pretty much a frickin’ fish, boasting a wingspan that’s three inches longer than his full height, insane hyperextension and a body makeup that literally decreases his resistance within the water. These are also natural parts of his body, traits he’s unable to control, but unlike Semenya, he’s the GOAT.

“Name any Olympic athlete,” Forsyth says. “Isn’t [it] the way in which they’re built—not like the rest of us—which gives them an advantage? The fact that this is naturally-occurring for Caster and yet she has to take some sort of blocker to reduce her level of testosterone… contravenes what the Olympic spirit is supposed to be about. It’s the celebration of exceptional people, that’s what the Olympics are about.”

In response to the ruling, Semenya said in a statement, “I know that the IAAF’s regulations have always targeted me specifically.”

And it’s hard not to agree with her.

There has long been talk around critiques of Semenya being racist and sexist. “You have to really ask them: What are they doing to Caster? What is is really going on here?” Forsyth says. “They have been clearly at her for years… So, does that tell me that the IOC is sexist and racist? [It] seems to hold true in this case.”

So, what exactly is at stake here?

A whole lot. Including the rights of female athletes. “At the broadest level, it’s disappointing because it’s a decision that endorses discrimination against women in sport,” Karkazi says.  And, since DSD athletes who want to compete are required to undergo sex testing, “it allows sports governing bodies to require medically unnecessary interventions  for women to compete in the category in which they belong and in which they’ve always competed, and that violates women’s bodily autonomy and integrity.”

Karkazi says the ruling may also further encourage misrepresentations about the science of sex biology and how that intersects with athleticism, which are already circulating. “I worry that people will just use [the ruling] as confirmation of what they already believe without deeper understanding of some of these areas,” she says. “And more broadly, I worry that it will chill and foster greater discrimination against women who may be gender non-normative or who may have sex atypical traits, because it doesn’t do anything to complicate our understanding of those areas.”

And, let’s not forget that it prohibits women from doing what they love. While this ruling in particular seems targeted at Semenya, Forsyth says it’ll inevitably affect any woman in the selected sports who want to compete and who come under scrutiny.

In August 2016, Forsyth wrote an op-ed for The Globe and Mail on the topic of sex testing. “I wrote ‘Olympic sport is no longer safe for women,’ I would put that right back out there,” Forsyth says. “It’s exactly the same. If you’re a woman and you want to compete in sports and you want to compete in those [narrowed down] events, don’t. Because you know what? This is what could happen to you, this is what you put yourself at risk of being subjected to when you agree to compete.”

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