On Monday, news outlets around the globe ran headlines reporting that South African middle-distance runner Caster Semenya won an important court battle. The two-time Olympic champion in the 800 meters had filed an appeal last week to challenge the Court of Arbitration in Sports’ (CAS) ruling that she must artificially lower her testosterone levels in order to compete in her best events.
The Swiss Federal Supreme Court (SFT) provided Monday’s announcement on the matter, ruling that the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) would have to temporarily suspend its testosterone regulations for Semenya, while her appeal awaits decision. As such, she is currently permitted to participate in competition without having to self-administer hormone treatments.
But while these headlines provide an optimistic spin on these events, they hardly paint a realistic picture.
First of all, the suspension of CAS’s ruling is very temporary — right now, it only lasts until June 25, 2019. Furthermore, this three-week grace period only applies to Semenya. Any other women with naturally-occurring levels of testosterone above five nanamoles per liter (nmol/L) are still required to undergo medical treatment to artificially suppress their testosterone levels if they want to compete in IAAF events from 400 meters to a mile.
It’s fair to say that this decision has left athletes more perplexed than ever.
“There’s widespread confusion and even panic among athletes and coaches about whether they can compete, at what level, and what this implementation means for them,” Dr. Katrina Karazis, a senior visiting fellow at Yale University’s Global Health Justice Partnership and co-author of Testosterone: An Unauthorized Biography, told ThinkProgress.
Semenya has been battling the IAAF for the right to run in the body she was born in for 10 years now, ever since she first burst onto the scene at the 2009 World Championships. In May, CAS upheld the ability of the IAAF to target athletes with disorders of sex development (DSD). People with DSD — a condition which is commonly referred to as intersex — might have hormones, genes, or reproductive organs that develop outside the gender binary.
CAS agreed with Semenya that the IAAF regulations were discriminatory. However, the majority of the people serving on that panel endorsed the decision anyway.
“The Panel found that the DSD Regulations are discriminatory, but the majority of the Panel found that, on the basis of the evidence submitted by the parties, 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,” the ruling states.
In her appeal, Semenya’s team argued that forcing Semenya and other women with DSD to artificially suppress their testosterone levels is a human rights violation. However, on Tuesday, the IAAF released a defiant open letter to a group of women’s rights organizations that have opposed the testosterone regulations. The letter provides a window into the IAAF’s mindset, painting the members of the governing body as angered at having their wisdom challenged. And the IAAF is not only is it doubling down on its decision, it is doing everything short of explicitly calling Semenya a man along the way.
“It is not fair and meaningful for biological women (with XX chromosomes that lead to ovaries that produce much lower levels of testosterone) to compete against men,” the letter reads.
“The challenge that the IAAF faces is how to accommodate individuals who identify as female (and are legally recognised as female) but who — because of a difference of sex development — have XY chromosomes that lead to testes that produce high levels of testosterone, and therefore have all the same physical advantages over women for the purposes of athletics as men have over women,” it continues.
It is worth noting that if Semenya competed against the men, her time in the 800 meters would not put her anywhere near even qualifying for the Olympics.
“I am a woman and I am a world-class athlete,” Semenya said in her appeal last week. “The IAAF will not drug me or stop me from being who I am.”
For now, the IAAF will have until June 25 to fight this temporary suspension. If it does not get the suspension overturned, or misses the deadline, Semenya will be able to continue to compete in her best events in the body she was born in until there is a ruling on her appeal — a process that could take a year or more, depending on the SFT’s actions.
But this narrow ruling will have consequences in the meantime, as all other women with DSDs will have to either take medication, undergo invasive surgery, or abandon events between 400 meters and one mile if they want to continue to compete against women in elite competitions. If the temporary suspension is overturned on June 25, Semenya has stated that she will not take medication or suppress her testosterone levels in any way; she plans to compete in events longer than one mile, such as the 2,000 meters.
Semenya is scheduled to compete in one event in the next three weeks, the Meeting de Montreuil outside of Paris, France, on June 11.