This past week, two time Olympic 800-meter champion Caster Semenya of South Africa lost her appeal of a World Athletics (formerly the IAAF) rule that places a strict limit on natural testosterone levels in order to compete in certain track events. The ruling reignited the ongoing controversy over the ethics and science of sex-based classifications in athletic competition.
The Switzerland-based Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) ruled that, while the World Athletics regulation is discriminatory, “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.”
Hours before Semenya competed in and won her first world championship in 2009, the IAAF required her to undergo “sex verification” testing. Critics pointed to her well-muscled physique, deep voice and rapid time improvements. After this race, she became the talk of the sports world, with many accusing her of being a man.While she never released specific medical details, the public presumes Semenya’s testosterone levels are higher than the typical female range. She ultimately retained her 2009 World title, but in 2011, the IAAF implemented a policy that required females to have under 10 nanomoles of testosterone per liter and if they did not, to use hormone suppressing drugs and possibly undergo surgery if they wanted to continue to compete. There is no public information on what measures, if any, Semenya underwent in order to compete in the 2012 Olympics, but she qualified and originally placed second.
In 2015, Mariya Savinova of Russia, who finished first in 2012, was found to have been using performance enhancing drugs throughout her Olympic campaign. The World Anti-Doping Agency recommended that Savinova be banned for life, but she ultimately was only stripped of the gold and suspended for four years. Savinova questioned the validity of Semenya’s 2009 World Title, saying, “just look at her.” Like so many 2012 Olympians, Semenya had to wait three years to get her rightful gold. In 2015, the CAS overturned the 2011 rule as they were “unable to conclude that hyperandrogenic female athletes may benefit from such a significant performance advantage that it is necessary to exclude them from competing in the female category.”
Semenya seemed free to compete and went on to reclaim her Olympic title in 2016 with a winning time of 1:55.28. In 2018, the IAAF published new rules for women with differences of sexual development (DSD), forcing female runners to reduce their testosterone to under five nanomoles per liter and maintain that level for at least six months prior to competition. According to an article in The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism, the standard female range of circulating testosterone is 0.1 to 1.8 nmol/L, and the normal male range is 7.7 to 29.4 nmol/L, displaying how the new testosterone regulation doesn’t fit either interval.
The policy is based on a controversial 2017 IAAF-funded study that showed that female competitors with higher testosterone have an advantage in the 400 meters, 400-meter hurdles, 800 meters, pole vault and hammer throw. Many in the medical field and sports world question the validity of the methodology of this study, as its cross sectional design can only prove an association between elevated testosterone and enhanced performance, not causality. The supposed advantage in Semenya’s 800-meter event is a 1.8 percent advantage compared to a 4.5 percent advantage in the hammer throw. World Athletics holds that these rules are in place in order to maintain fairness in female athletics.
Many human rights and women’s sports activists including Billie Jean King, advocated on her behalf, as they saw the potential for gender discrimination against Semenya.
Track officials began to regulate what makes someone female in the 1930s — with the use of gynecological, chromosomal and hormonal testing in the past century. While they are obsessed with verifying athletes’ femaleness, track officials have spurred similar scrutiny to verify one’s maleness.
The IAAF omitted the hammer throw and pole vault and included the 1500 meter without explanation, leading many to speculate the new rules were put in place to specifically target Semenya. Her lawyers argue that her genetic gifts should be celebrated not punished, and that the setting of thresholds amounts to a reductionist understanding of gender and that therapy to reduce naturally occurring testosterone can be physically harmful. Many of Semenya’s supporters believe she is facing a triple bind of discrimination — racism, misogyny and homophobia.
Looking forward, Semenya has 30 days to appeal to Switzerland’s Supreme Court, but federal judges rarely intervene in CAS decisions. World Athletics decided that if Semenya wants to defend her World Championship this month she must start taking testosterone suppressing drugs and will have to continue to do so in order to compete for a third gold medal in Tokyo. She has started to train for the 200 meter race, an event she could compete in without altering her body.
Caster Semenya made it clear she is not hanging up her racing shoes anytime soon, nor is she finished championing equality; after the ruling, she remarked “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.”