Caster Semenya: D-Day for South African on testosterone rule challenge


The South African double Olympic champion is disputing an International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) ruling that seeks to force hyperandrogenic athletes or those with “differences of sexual development” (DSD) to reduce their testosterone levels should they want to continue competing as women.

Switzerland’s Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) is to publish its ruling on Wednesday.

The rules, which aim to cover events from 400 meters up to one mile, were due to come into effect in November last year before being delayed by Semenya’s CAS challenge.

Semenya, who is the most dominant middle-distant runner of her generation, is hyperandrogenous, meaning she has elevated testosterone levels, a condition that has dogged her athletic career ever since she won the world 800 meters title as an 18-year-old in 2009.

Hyperandrogenism is a medical condition estimated to occur in 5% to 10% of women.

Semenya identifies as female, but an excess of testosterone has been found to increase muscle mass within females and cause increased strength, stamina and physical energy and some critics argue that skews what should be a level playing field in women’s athletics.

Under the proposed IAAF rules, athletes categorized as DSD would have to reduce their blood testosterone level for a continuous period of at least six months, maintaining those levels continuously for the rest of their athletic career.

While the current number of hyperandrogenic and transgender athletes competing at international level is thought to be relatively low, Wednesday’s ruling is likely to have a seismic impact on the future of sport.

‘Fair competition and treatment’

A statement released by the IAAF before the hearing began in February said it was seeking to ensure that “athletes who identify as female but have testes, and testosterone levels in the male range, at least drop their testosterone levels into the female range in order to compete at the elite level in the female classification.”

It added: “This standard is necessary to ensure fair competition for all women. Indeed, without it, we risk losing the next generation of female athletes, since they will see no path to success in our sport.”

The IAAF has previously said that it is not seeking to classify any DSD athletes as male, according to the AFP News agency.
Semenya (center) arrives for a landmark hearing at the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS).

Other experts say research has so far been inconclusive and that this is just a quirk of biology, the sort not legislated against in other disciplines. For example, few swimmers have the wingspan of Michael Phelps or the combination of height and fast-twitch muscles as Usain Bolt.

Semenya has received support from within South Africa and a few select voices within the sport.

US athletics great Ed Moses said earlier this year that it was important that Semenya was “treated fairly” and that athletics has had its “head in the ground” over the issue.

Athletics South Africa stated the country has a “constitutional obligation to contest any infringements of human rights, as shaped by our experiences under apartheid” prior to the hearing.

That position was backed up by South Africa’s minister for sport and recreation, Tokozile Xasa, who stated that what was at stake was about far more than just sport.

“Women’s bodies, their well being, their ability to earn a livelihood, their very identity, their privacy and sense of safety and belonging in the world, are being questioned. This is a gross violation of internationally accepted standards of human rights law,” Xasa said at the start of the case.

Xasa also said it seemed like the Olympic champion was being targeted by the IAAF as the only events covered by its new rules appeared to be ones Semenya competed in.

Semenya (center) arrives for a landmark hearing at the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS).

A career in the limelight

Semenya burst onto the scene at the 2009 world championships in Berlin where she won a first major gold, but she was unable to compete for much of 2009 and 2010 after undergoing gender verification tests, the results of which were never officially released.

The South African was eventually cleared to compete again, but a new rule which enforced testosterone limits was introduced in 2011. Yet that directive was subsequently overturned by CAS in 2015.

Semenya went on to win Olympic gold in Rio de Janeiro in 2016 — adding to a gold medal belatedly picked up in London four years earlier after her silver was upgraded because of a doping violation by the winner, Mariya Savinova of Russia.

British athlete Lynsey Sharp was reduced to tears after watching Semenya storm away to victory in Rio. Sharp stated at the time that it was “difficult” for others like her to compete.

On Friday, Semenya won gold in the 5,000 meters at the South African Athletics Championships. This represents a new event for Semenya and one that would not be covered by the new IAAF rules.

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