Caster Semenya’s challenge of the IAAF’s testosterone proposals will shape the future of sport no matter the verdict
No matter what is decided over the next month, Caster Semenya is set to shape the future of sport.
Semenya may be just one athlete and her case at the Court of Arbitration for Sport (Cas) may be focused solely on her own issue, but the South African’s fate is sure to have far-reaching consequences.
The Olympic 800m champion will know by 26 March whether her challenge to proposals to limit testosterone in female middle-distance runners has been successful with Cas or not.
Track and field’s governing body the IAAF wants to make Semenya, who has a condition called hyperandrogenism which means she produces more testosterone than most women, take medication to reduce her levels.
It says increased testosterone gives Semenya an unfair advantage over her competitors and the rule changes are needed to create “a level playing field”.
“This standard is necessary to ensure fair competition for all women,” the IAAF said in a statement at the start of the Cas hearing in Lausanne, Switzerland, last week. “Indeed, without it, we risk losing the next generation of female athletes, since they will see no path to success in our sport.”
If the regulations are imposed and Semenya choses not to take medication to lower her testosterone, the IAAF says she would still be able to race at distances of less than 400m or more than a mile, or could compete in men’s or mixed gender competitions.
Semenya’s legal team argues that the 28-year-old, whose condition is also referred to as differences in sex development (DSD), is “unquestionably a woman” and should be free to run against other women without restriction because “her genetic gift should be celebrated not discriminated against”.
“The IAAF’s regulations do not empower anyone,” Semenya’s lawyers said in a statement. “Rather, they represent yet another flawed and hurtful attempt to police the sex of female athletes.”
After a week of hearing both sides of the complex issue and evidence for and against the IAAF’s proposed rules – as well as accusations of underhand tactics outside the courtroom – Cas has retired to make its decision, which it described as “one of the most pivotal” in the organisation’s 35-year history.
While the primary concern is for Semenya’s future, the grand scale of the issue at hand, which deals with gender, biology, identity and the parameters of sport, means her case will undoubtedly have ramifications beyond just her.
She may be simply fighting for her rights to continue to ply her trade and she may not have asked to be at the centre of a hugely divisive issue, but Semenya’s case promises to be a landmark one regardless.
Is the IAAF trying to impose “barbaric, dangerous and discriminatory” rules, as tennis trailblazer Billie Jean King says? Or is it acting “in the interests of protecting female athletes’ rights and competition”, as world marathon record holder Paula Radcliffe believes?
One of the problems with drawing conclusions on such a nuanced issue is that the scientific basis behind the IAAF’s argument, which it was confident would “stand up to challenge” in court, is far from a matter of universal consensus.
IAAF lawyer Jonathan Taylor said “more than 100 records at national, continental and world level” have been set by female DSD athletes, who can have internal testes. The precise extent of the advantage from increased muscle size, strength and haemoglobin levels, however, was opposed by scientists giving evidence on Semenya’s behalf.
What further complicates matters is the question of how the Cas ruling on Semenya will affect transgender athletes. If she wins, some fear it could set a precedent and bolster the case of transgender athletes taking hormones in order to compete in women’s sport.
Tennis legend Martina Navratilova was accused of “transphobia” and expelled from LGBTQ group Athlete Ally after airing her concerns in a Sunday Times column.
She argued: “A man can decide to be female, take hormones if required by whatever sporting organisation, win everything in sight and perhaps earn a small fortune, and then reverse his decision and go back to making babies. It’s insane and it’s cheating.”
While it’s important to make the distinction between transgender athletes and those like Semenya who were born with biological differences, the issue is just one example of the multi-faceted debates next month’s ruling will undoubtedly trigger.
The International Olympic Committee is understood to be waiting on the case’s conclusion before announcing its own testosterone limits for transgender athletes ahead of next year’s Toyko Olympics.
Meanwhile, athletes of varying backgrounds and from all sports will be waiting to see how the decision affects their own careers. In the long-term, there are even suggestions from some scientists that the categories of competition in athletics could be sub-divided, as they are in the Paralympics, to accommodate diversity in biological make-ups.
For now, though, the speculation and debate will rage on until Cas decides Semenya’s future – and possibly that of sport as a whole.