International Panel Prohibits Women’s Competitions for Caster Semenya and Other Female Athletes Whose Bodies are Not Female Enough

semenya horizontal Hormone testosterone high level
Photo Credit schoopnest.com

Caster Semenya, the South African Olympic athlete who has earned countless gold medals — including the top prize at both the 2012 and 2016 Olympics for the 800m dash — will no longer be eligible to compete in short- to middle-distance female track events affiliated with the International Association of Athletics Federations, following a Wednesday decision by the Court of Arbitration for Sport. The case was brought to the CAS by Semenya as an appeal to the IAAF’s 2018 regulation on testosterone levels in female athletes.

The controversial 2-1 ruling by the CAS bars women with high levels of testosterone from competing in certain female track events, which can exclude athletes who have differences in sexual development known as DSD. People with DSD have both male and female genetic traits due to their hormonal levels; people without DSD also have variable levels of hormones. But after two months of deliberation, the CAS decided that in order to compete, testosterone levels in women must be less than 5 nanomoles per liter within six month of a race. While Semenya has not publicly confirmed that her testosterone levels fall outside of the new limits or that she has DSD, information leaked from previous sex-confirmation tests to which she had been subjected implies that she has more naturally-occuring testosterone than is currently allowable. She has never not considered herself a female.

Semenya can still compete at future 400m and 800m events, but only if she agrees to put her body through unwanted treatments that will lower her testosterone levels to amounts that the IAAF considers appropriate for a female athlete. The CAS allowed that the hormone level restriction is discriminatory in nature and has clarified that the ruling does not dispute whether an athlete is male or female based on this criteria. However, they justified the decision as a “necessary, reasonable and proportionate means” to keeping competition fair for women’s events, based on their understanding that high levels of testosterone significantly enhances the performance of athletes in certain circumstances.

The panel felt that they were in a position where they had to choose a fair sense of competition in women’s events over a fair definition of female eligibility, clarifying that the ruling was based on principles and was not targeting Semenya. “This is not a case about cheating or wrongdoing of any sort,” they wrote in the official ruling. “Ms. Semenya is not accused of breaching any rule. Her participation and success in elite female athletics is entirely beyond reproach and she has done nothing whatsoever to warrant any personal criticism.”

Caster Semenya controversial ruling
Photo Credit Laurent Gillieron/Keystone via AP

Semenya, though, put out a statement suggesting that the IAAF had in fact been targeting her with their regulation. After all, it only applies to the events in which she competes and excels. She has also been the target of critics and her fellow athletes who have considered competitions alongside her as “unfair.” “For a decade the I.A.A.F. has tried to slow me down, but this has actually made me stronger,” Semenya wrote. “The decision of the C.A.S. 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.”

Notably, there are no testosterone caps that prevent men from being eligible in their events, even if those levels might theoretically affect their performance. In addition, Semenya’s legal team has consistently argued that testosterone levels don’t necessarily benefit athletes more than “acceptable” performance-enhancing measures, including nutrition, gear, training regimens, and other body-related benefits. Someone with extremely long legs, for instance, might have a permanent advantage over athletes whose bodies fit the norm.

Despite the ruling, the CAS panel shared their serious concerns over whether hormone treatment would subject compliant athletes to negative side-effects and whether these regulations could be “applied fairly.” The decision will likely restrict competition for transgender male-to-female Olympic athletes, who currently need to maintain levels below 10 nanomoles per liter.