On the 1st of May, the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS), an international court for sports based in Geneva, Switzerland, handed down a decision that will forever change the landscape of the sporting world.
The case involved the challenge by the two-time defending Olympic and three-time World 800 metres champion Caster Semenya and Athletics South Africa (ASA) to the International Association of Athletics Federations’ (IAAF) rule that restricts testosterone levels in female athletes. The CAS, which is not presided over by a judge, but a panel of arbitrators who are specialists in mediation and sport law, ruled by a vote of 2 – 1, in favour of the IAAF November 1st, 2018 hyperandrogenism rule which places restrictions on testosterone levels on female athletes who participate in track events from 400 metres to the mile.
CAS stated the decision was “necessary, reasonable and proportionate” to ensure that competition among females was fair. At the same time, CAS expressed serious concerns as to the practical application of this rule. The IAAF had created the rule after research it paid for in July 2017 found that females with unusually high levels of testosterone have a “competitive advantage” in those events.
Semenya noted in her response to the verdict that it was “unfair” and that she wanted to “run, naturally, the way I was born.”
The ruling, which has opened a Pandora’s Box of questions on sport, gender, scientific methods of measurement and classification, and human rights, has sparked an international debate that is showing the early signs of a gathering firestorm.
Semenya might well be justified in stating that she is being targeted by the IAAF. Ever since she burst on the scene as an eighteen year old at the 2009 World Athletics Championships in Berlin, stopping the clock at 1:55.45, the fastest time for that year, to capture the 800 metres crown, she has been the subject of scrutiny by the IAAF.
The IAAF asked Semenya to take a sex verification test to ascertain whether she was female. The international body noted that the test was necessary following the rapid improvements in her times (25 seconds in the 1500 metres and eight seconds in the 800 metres), gains normally associated with drug use. The test sparked outrage and cries of racism as the IAAF defended itself that stating that the test was not motivated by suspicion of cheating but to determine whether Semenya had a rare medical condition that gave her an unfair advantage.
The results of the test were never revealed publicly but leaked reports suggested that Semenya possessed both male and female characteristics, including higher than normal levels of testosterone.
Does testosterone, a hormone produced naturally by the human body and found in higher levels in men, give elite female athletes an advantage? Everyone responds differently to testosterone and there is no guarantee that the athletes who show higher levels of testosterone will cross the line first. Or are elite athletes just the result of their gene pool, dedication, training and sacrifice?
Semenya, who was banned from competition whilst awaiting the results of the tests, returned to competition in July 2010. She then had to undergo hormone therapy for four years to regulate her testosterone level when the IAAF introduced its rule in 2011.
Ironically, in July 2015, in the case of Dutee Chand v Athletics Federation of India and The IAAF, CAS found that there was a lack of evidence provided that testosterone increased female athletic performance and informed the IAAF that it had two years to provide the evidence.
The ruling forced the IAAF to suspend its policy on high natural levels of testosterone in women and Chand, a 100 and 200 metres sprinter, who could not compete for two years returned to competition last year winning silver medals in the sprint events at the Asian Games in Jakarta.
What are Semenya’s options? Apart from appealing the decision, which is very unlikely to be overturned, she can abide by the ruling, and ironically, undergo hormone therapy again (isn’t the IAAF opposed to drug use?) with the potential nasty side effects such as an increase in risk of blood clots, for six months to regulate her testosterone level and then maintain that level, and return to competition in her favoured events, or move up to the 3,000 and 5,000 metres events or compete with the men.
The latter option, of course, then begs the question, is one‘s testosterone levels now considered the determining factor of one’s gender when competing in the athletic world? Scientific experts are willing to argue that testosterone is an arbitrary and unfair measure for determining gender. Of course, the argument only gets wider when the subject of transgender athletes is added.
Caster Semenya is one of only a handful of athletes affected by this IAAF rule? Is she the subject of targeting by the IAAF? Are middle distance runners the only athletes who gain an advantage from testosterone?
“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,” University of Toronto professor Bruce Kidd, a longtime member of the Olympic movement and who was involved in the Chand case, observed.
“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,” Kidd further noted.
Whether Semenya is a target or not, the sporting landscape is no longer the same.