On Wednesday, an international sports body issued yet another decision against the South African track star Caster Semenya, agreeing with the International Association of Athletics Federation that women athletes who have testosterone levels above a certain limit must take steps to reduce those hormone levels in order to compete in select events.
Ever since she came onto the international track and field scene as an 18-year-old, Semenya, a two-time Olympic gold medalist in the 800 meters, has come under scrutiny—over her body, her perceived lack of femininity, her sex. And the IAAF has long targeted Semenya, first subjecting her to invasive and degrading “medical” testing and then, in 2011, formalizing a policy that tied women’s eligibility to their testosterone levels—what my Deadspin colleague Dvora Meyers recently described as “a racist, sexist policy intended to police cultural ideas about what an ideal female body should look like and how it should perform.”
In 2015, the Court of Arbitration for Sport, ruling on a separate case brought by the Indian sprinter Dutee Chand, ordered the IAAF to suspend those regulations for at least two years in order to gather more evidence to support them. That did not deter the IAAF from yet another attempt. In April of last year, the sports body issued a new rule that women who compete internationally in select track events—including Semenya’s specialty, the 800 meters—would have to maintain testosterone levels below a certain limit in order to be eligible to compete.
In response, a group of prominent women athletes, including the tennis legend Billie Jean King, penned an open letter to the IAAF criticizing its new rule. “No woman should be required to change her body to compete in women’s sport,” they wrote, adding: “These regulations continue the invasive surveillance and judgment of women’s bodies that have long tainted women’s sport. They intensify the unfair scrutiny that female athletes already experience and exacerbate discrimination against women in sport who are perceived as not prescribing to normative ideas about femininity, which can include their appearance, their gender expression, and their sexuality.” Semenya challenged the rule and appealed it to the CAS, calling the IAAF’s latest regulation “flawed” and “hurtful.”
Despite agreeing with Semenya that the IAAF’s policy was “discriminatory,” the CAS upheld the rule Wednesday, writing that “such discrimination is a necessary, reasonable and proportionate means of achieving the IAAF’s aim of preserving the integrity of female athletics” in track events ranging from the 400 meters to the mile.
Semenya, who is considering an appeal of the CAS’s ruling, issued a statement through her attorneys, writing, “I know that the I.A.A.F.’s regulations have always targeted me specifically.” The CAS’s decision, she continued, “will not hold me back.”
But as it stands now, Semenya’s options, if she wants to keep doing what she loves, are limited and quite frankly, fucked up. From the New York Times:
If Semenya wants to keep participating in her specialty, the 800 meters, at major international competitions, she now faces some hard choices: take hormone-suppressing drugs and reduce her testosterone levels below five nanomoles per liter for six months before competing, then maintain those lowered levels; compete against men; or enter competitions for intersex athletes, if any are offered. Otherwise, she would have to give up her eligibility to run the 800 at the most prestigious competitions like the Olympics.
As for the so-called “integrity of female athletics” that both the CAS and the IAAF purport to want to uphold, it’s a remarkable irony that their method of doing so prevents women from competing. Though testosterone can confer a slight edge to women athletes, it is by no means the only naturally occurring trait that affects one’s performance. Tellingly, no one is arguing that we need to ban women athletes who naturally have more fast-twitch muscle fibers than others, or who are taller, or who have had the benefit of access to the best training that money can buy.
The IAAF wishes to cling to an outdated vision of what it means to be a woman, and Semenya, according to their retrograde ideas, doesn’t fit. (As Pierre Weiss, the general secretary of the IAAF, has cruelly and astonishingly described Semenya in the past, “She is a woman, but maybe not 100 percent.”) They are using one fiction—their limited and essentializing definition of a woman—to justify another fiction: the inherent fairness of elite sports.
Semenya is very understandably tired of being targeted and scrutinized. “I just want to run naturally, the way I was born,” she said last year. “It is not fair that I am told I must change. It is not fair that people question who I am.”
Just let Caster Semenya run.