The Court of Arbitration for Sport has ruled that South Africa’s Olympic-winning athlete Caster Semenya will have to take pills to suppress the natural levels of testosterone in her body if she wants to continue competing as a female.
The landmark ruling of a sports court has once again brought into the spotlight the hot debate over the intersectionality of gender and sex in sports.
South African athlete Caster Semenya, a famous two-time Olympic champion, has for years been challenging the traditional limits on female athletes.
However, in her latest battle, Semenya lost her court appeal on Wednesday against the rules of the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), which force some female athletes to regulate their testosterone levels.
The Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) judges dismissed Semenya’s appeal against measures imposed by the IAAF, targeting ‘hyperandrogenic’ athletes or those with ‘differences of sexual development’ (DSD).
The decision basically means that women with elevated testosterone will have to take suppressive treatments if they wish to compete as females in certain events.
Testosterone increases muscle mass, strength and haemoglobin, which affects endurance. Some competitors have said women with higher levels of the hormone have an unfair advantage.
The athletics governing body has stressed that DSD athletes with male levels of testosterone benefit from increased bone and muscle strength similar to men who have gone through puberty.
But even the judges admitted that regulating what the woman's body should be is ‘discriminatory’.
The judges said: “[The rules are] discriminatory…[but] such discrimination is a necessary, reasonable and proportionate means of achieving the IAFF’s aims of preserving the integrity of female athletics in the Restricted Events.”
Semenya, who has endured the sex tests and sex-related regulations against her, vowed she would not give up.
"I know that the IAAF's regulations have always targeted me specifically," she said in a statement released via her lawyers on Wednesday.
"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. I will once again rise above and continue to inspire young women and athletes in South Africa and around the world."
The verdict, which is likely to have far-reaching consequences for the future of women’s sport, triggered a backlash from around the globe.
Many scientific experts argued that achieving excellence in sport is a combination of training and commitment as well as genetics and that barring people from competition over a single genetic factor has no scientific basis.
Katrina Karkazis, an expert on testosterone, said: "I have spent eight years enmeshed in research on this issue as well as on T [testosterone] and athleticism, and I do not see a basis for this decision. Bravo to Caster and everyone for a courageous fight against a discriminatory regulation. More work to do."
Seema Patel, a Senior Lecturer in law at Nottingham Law School, agrees with Karkazis and criticised the ruling for green-lighting “unethical medical procedures”.
“A female who has naturally higher levels of testosterone in her body should not be prohibited from competing with women, just as a female who is naturally taller than the average woman should not be prohibited,” Patel said in a statement.
Deborah Antoine, CEO of the Women’s Sports Foundation argued that the ruling is “deeply disappointing, discriminatory” and vowed to “continue to speak out and demand change to this discriminatory policy”.
The United Nations Human Rights Council, in a rare intrusion into the world of sport, also adopted a resolution last March, calling the IAAF rules, “unnecessary, humiliating and harmful”.
Letlhogonolo Mokgoroane, a fellow at South African NGO Sonke Gender Justice, believes that the decision “will have far-reaching implications not just on Caster Semenya but it will also apply to transgender and intersex people”.
And he said he is not surprised because “the IAAF’s rules have been used to target women from the global south”.
Some people on social media were of the view that the ruling is racist and it aims to demonise black women’s bodies.
Black bodies - particularly Black women’s bodies - continue to be demonized & restrained by white considerations of “normality.” What’s happened to Caster Semenya is why we must fight against all gender-based oppression because we’re all at risk. https://t.co/8YIQTeYeuL— Raquel Willis (@RaquelWillis_) May 1, 2019
This misogynoirist treatment of Caster Semenya is exactly what we mean when we say gender is a form of ongoing colonial violence.— jelly femme (@holymoley) May 1, 2019
A (cis) black woman is being forced to medically alter her body because white colonial standards don't deem her truly a woman.
Michael Phelps is seen as a natural talent because his body naturally produces less than half the lactic acid of his opponents, but Caster Semenya is being barred from international athletics for being a black woman with a high testosterone level— 🦝Meaney Miney Mo🦝 (@raccomrade) May 1, 2019
When Semenya blasted to the world title as a teenager in 2009, she was almost immediately embroiled in questions about verification of her sex.
Ten years on, that debate continues, and Semenya's decision - and that of other women in a similar situation - on what she does next will be watched by fans of athletics and far beyond.