Olympic champion middle-distance runner Caster Semenya is in the middle of a protracted battle with the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) over its decade-long quest to force her to artificially lower her testosterone levels in order to compete.
On Thursday, Semenya gave the world a rare peak into the toll this fight has taken on her, mentally, physically, and emotionally, when she opened up about her experience from 2011 to 2015. It was during this period, when the IAAF’s previous testosterone regulations were in place, that she was compelled to take drugs in order to alter her natural body composition so that she could qualify for competition.
“I am a woman, but the IAAF has again tried to stop me from running the way I was born,” Semenya said a press release.
“The IAAF questions my sex, causes me great pain and required me to take hormonal drugs that made me feel constantly sick and unable to focus for many years. No other woman should be forced to go through this in order to have the same right that all women have – to do what we love and run the way we were born.”
The devastating details about feeling sick and unfocused for years were buried at the bottom of an otherwise standard press release responding to the Federal Supreme Court of Switzerland’s rejection of the IAAF’s request to immediately re-impose testosterone regulations on Semenya.
But those details deserve further scrutiny, as they paint a devastating portrayal of the inhumanity that the IAAF is trying to inflict on women with differences in sex development (DSD) — women who have hormones, genes, or reproductive organs that develop outside the gender binary.
This is believed to be the first time that Semenya has talked openly about the years she was forced to take drugs to suppress her naturally-occurring testosterone levels.
The IAAF first began targeting Semenya in 2009, when she was an 18-year-old who burst onto the world stage at the 2009 world championships by winning the 800m. During that meet, the IAAF leaked to the press that they planned to gender test Semenya. She was cleared to compete again in 2010, but in 2011, the IAAF implemented new regulations for women with hyperandrogenism, or elevated testosterone levels. Those rules remained in place until 2015, when Indian sprinter Dutee Chand challenged the regulations in court, and the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) ruled that there wasn’t enough scientific evidence to justify the policy.
Semenya never confirmed publicly that she was intersex, or that she was forced to suppress her testosterone levels with drugs during this time in order to compete during that four-year timespan. But it was widely assumed to be the case, in part because while her race times were still great during this period, she didn’t quite dominate the same way she did before and after the policy was in place.
Those results could be attributed to the fact that the medical protocol into which she’d been conscripted lowered her testosterone levels, but it is just as likely that her performance was also impacted by the physical sickness and mental fog that came bundled as side effects
(It’s worth underscoring that she was still capable of superlative athletic performances — she won the silver medal in the 2012 Olympics, and the silver later turned into gold when the champion, Mariya Savinova-Farnosova, was stripped of her title due to evidence that she was doping.)
Since 2018, the IAAF has been more directly targeting Semenya with regulations, including the requirement that all women who have naturally-occurring levels of testosterone above five nanamoles per liter (nmol/L) and compete in IAAF events from 400 meters to a mile must take drugs or undergo an invasive surgery to reduce their testosterone levels below the threshold for at least six months prior competing.
These new regulations notably did not apply to Chand, who only competes in 100m and 200m sprints. With Chand’s case no longer applicable, this meant if Semenya wanted to overturn these rules, she would have to challenge them herself. So, the naturally quiet Semenya did just that, and those regulations were suspended while the case was pending.
The past two months alone have been a dizzying deluge of court rulings and appeals. In May, the Court of Arbitration in Sports (CAS) upheld the IAAF’s ban. But then Semenya appealed that ruling, and earlier this month, the Swiss Federal Supreme Court (SFT) announced that the regulations must once again be temporarily suspended while Semenya’s appeal is pending. This week, the IAAF filed an urgent request to get the SFT to immediately re-impose the regulations, but the SFT denied that request.
That latest denial by the SFT was what Semenya’s legal team was reacting to in its press release on Thursday.
Semenya’s revelations are important because the IAAF claims that taking a pill to suppress testosterone levels is safe and unintrusive, and that this is a humane way to discriminate. Her experience contradicts those claims. But her honesty is also important because it reminds us all that this is not really about appeals or court filings, fairness or protecting women’s sports. It’s about rules rooted in racism, sexism, and homophobia, that aim to control women’s bodies through any means necessary.
Right now, Semenya is able to run in any race she pleases. However, the suspension of the regulations only applies to Semenya — any other woman who has naturally-occurring levels of testosterone above five nanamoles per liter (nmol/L) is still barred from competing in IAAF events from 400 meters to a mile, unless they take the drugs or undergo surgery.
Semenya has announced that even if the IAAF’s regulations are upheld, she will not take the required drugs again. Instead, she will compete in events longer than one mile. It’s more than understandable why; she knows just how harmful those hormonal suppressants can be.
In the press release on Thursday, Semenya reinforced her commitment to fighting against the IAAF, for herself, and for women everywhere.
“No woman should be subjected to these rules,” she said. “I thought hard about not running the 800m in solidarity unless all women can run free. But I will run now to show the IAAF that they can not drug us.”