IAAF Uphold Sexist Testosterone Rules in Landmark Caster Semenya Case
This is discrimination, pure and simple.
South African middle-distance runner Caster Semenya is an Olympic gold medalist twice over. She won her first gold medal in the 800 meter events at the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, which she won again in the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. She has also secured several World Championship titles in her sport, making her one of the most decorated female runners in the game.
But instead of celebrating her noteworthy achievements, Semenya has been dogged by a campaign against her genetics and her gender. This ongoing harassment at the hands of the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) has been occurring for over a decade. In 2009, Semenya was forced to take a “sex verification” test, which her coaches had told her was a standard drug test. The IAAF was criticized for profiling Semenya, and accusations of racism, sexism, and colonialism were leveled at the organization.
In 2010 she was cleared to compete again, and went on to win the gold medal in 2012 after Russian winner Mariya Savinov was disqualified for doping. But after her win at the 2016 Olympics, fellow athletes criticized Semenya for having an unfair advantage due to her high testosterone levels.
In April 2018, the IAAF issued a controversial ruling that “women who have high levels of naturally occurring testosterone may not compete in women’s middle distance races unless they take medication to reduce those levels.” Essentially, women who, through no fault of their own, are forced to alter their natural body chemistry to compete on a “more level” playing field.
Semenya has since fought to appeal the ruling, which is a clear case of discrimination. And that’s not just my opinion: the IAAF openly acknowledge that their ruling is discriminatory, saying in a statement, “The panel found that the DSD Regulations are discriminatory but 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.”
Semenya lost today’s appeal, which is a massive loss not only for her but for other athletes with differences in sexual development (DSDs). As our cultural understanding and acceptance of gender diversity expands, people with DSD or intersex qualities are continually punished for having bodies that don’t fit neatly into traditional gender binaries. It’s a human rights violation that sets a cruel standard for the future of women’s sports, DSD athletes, and trans atheletes.
It’s especially galling when you consider that other outlying genetic traits are celebrated, especially when they are displayed by white male athletes. Gold medalist swimmer Michael Phelps, for example, boasts a massive wingspan and a unique ability to produce half of the lactic acid that his competitors do. He has a clear genetic advantage, but he is not penalized for it. In fact, he is celebrated for it.
Semenya rightly called out the discrimination she’s struggled against her entire career as a DSD athlete who is also black and queer. She released a statement saying, “I know that the IAAF’s regulations have always targeted me specifically … For a decade the IAAF has tried to slow me down, but this has actually made me stronger. The decision of the Cas (Court of Arbitration for Sport) 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.”
(via The Guardian, image: FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP/Getty Images)
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