Semenya catches a break after legal battles

Updated: Mar 1, 2020

By Waseem Bahemia

South Africa’s golden girl, Caster Semenya, has been on the athletics scene for a while. The last ruling by the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) was the most controversial decision against the athlete. This new ruling was an appeal after the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) barred her from performing in her preferred middle-distance events due to her high testosterone levels. Ever since she won her first gold medal she has been on the IAAF’s radar due to her outstanding performances.

In April 2018, the IAAF announced new regulations for athletes with high testosterone levels to adhere to. The new ruling meant that if these athletes compete in female events they need to take hormonal contraceptives to reduce their testosterone levels. Both Semenya and Athletics South Africa (ASA) appealed this decision to CAS where a decision would be made in 2019.

On the 1st of May 2019, everything changed, as CAS made the decision that high testosterone levels in female athletes should be lowered in order for them to be eligible to compete. The CAS report stated that “ athletes with a natural testosterone level over 5 nmol/L, and who experience a material androgenizing effect from enhanced testosterone levels, are to reduce their natural testosterone levels [and] maintain that reduced level continuously for at least six months.”

This decision seemed to be directed at Semenya mainly, but “The IAAF contended that the regulations do not infringe any athlete’s rights, including the right to equal treatment, but instead, are a justified and appropriate means of ensuring consistent treatment, as well as preserving fair and meaningful competition within the female classification.”

ASA and South Africans alike came out in support of Semenya after the disappointing decision by CAS. Semenya made it clear that she would not be taking any medication to lower her testosterone levels. In a statement issued this past week, the athlete said “I am a woman and I am a world-class athlete. The IAAF will not drug me or stop me from being who I am.” Minister of Sports, Tokozile Xasa has now instructed ASA to further appeal the decision at the Swiss Federal Tribunal. This process could take another 6 months which would mean Semenya missing the World Championships this year in Doha.

The IAAF’s attack seems to be on women of color and their bodies as they never did investigate Jamila Kratochvilova. She is a Polish athlete that won both the 400m and the 800m at the 1983 World Championships and set a world record for the 400m. Later that same year she also set a world record for the 800m. The New York Times has widely reported that the athlete participated in state-sponsored doping programs during the Cold War. Kratochvilova’s 800m world record still stands until today, only Semenya and Kenyan athlete, Pamela Jemino have managed come within a second of the record. Kratochvilova had the same physical attributes as Caster Semenya but that was never questioned by the IAAF nor were the doping charges ever investigated.

The IAAF further stated that if Semenya still wanted to compete in her favored middle-distance events without taking any contraceptives, she would be eligible to compete against men. This statement is contradictory given that fact that the IAAF states that one should identify as female or intersex, but she would then be female in some events and male in others. Sean Saifa Wall, cofounder of the Intersex Justice Project told Wired that “This decision is biased, not only based on the fact that Caster is intersex, but that she is from South Africa, she’s a Black South African, she’s queer, and she’s gender non-conforming.” This decision by CAS has further affected other athletes, especially black women, after two Kenyan sprinters who were dropped from the national team after testing positive for high-testosterone levels. Semenya will not back down and is leading the charge against the IAAF. Her legal team submitted another appeal to the Federal Supreme Court of Switzerland, the appeal will focus on fundamental human rights and if they were violated by the IAAF’s decision.

On Monday, 03 June 2019, The Swiss Court ruled a temporary suspension on Semenya’s ban. Semenya and her legal team are relieved. “She can run the races that she was told that she cannot run," says Semenya’s lawyer, Gregg Nott. The suspension was announced just in time for Semenya to compete in the IAAF Diamond League competition in Doha on May 3, 2019, where she grabbed gold for the women's 800m. Semenya's Swiss lawyer, Dorothee Schramm, comments on the case, saying "this is an important case that will have fundamental implications for the human rights of female athletes."

In the weeks following this ruling, the court will come up with an updated decision on the testosterone-lowering medication and whether female athletes should be made to take them. This is a win for both Semenya and South African sport, but this suspension is temporary and the fight for equal rights will continue, just as Semenya continues to race.

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