Caster Semenya, the South African runner who plans to compete in the Tokyo Olympics next year, must take medication to reduce her testosterone levels in order to compete, a court has ruled.
On Wednesday, the Lausanne, Switzerland-based Court of Arbitration for Sport, which is the highest court in international sports, upheld a controversial 2018 ruling by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), which requires female athletes to take hormonal contraception to maintain testosterone levels within organization guidelines in order to be able to compete among female athletes at official events. Because the IAAF ruling is only applicable to athletes who run between 400 meters and a mile, it has been criticized by some sports journalists as unfairly targeted at Semenya, who has faced questions about her biological makeup throughout her career.
Although Semenya appealed the IAAF ruling, CAS denied her request for arbitrary, writing that while it had “some serious concerns” about the new testosterone regulations, “on the basic 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.”
Throughout her career in track, Semenya’s superior athletic performance and non-conventionally feminine appearance have been the subject of intense controversy, with many athletic officials using Semenya’s body and career as a platform for larger discussions about whether female athletes with higher than average testosterone levels may have an unfair edge in competition (despite Semenya’s defenders pointing out that athletes like Michael Phelps are celebrated, and not penalized, for having clear physical advantages over their competitors).
In 2010, when she was 18, she was forced to undergo extensive sex testing after some athletics officials questioned the legitimacy of her 800-meter world championship victory in Berlin. Although Semenya was cleared to compete, the experience had an impact on her: “I have been subjected to unwarranted and invasive scrutiny of the most intimate and private details of my being,” she said in a statement at the time. “Some of the occurrences leading up to and immediately following the Berlin World Championships have infringed on not only my rights as an athlete but also my fundamental and human rights including my rights to dignity and privacy.”
Many on social media were outraged by the most recent decision, referring to sports’ officials fascination with her body and her biological makeup as obsessive, intrusive and arguably racist. Others criticized right-wing outlets like Fox News, which incorrectly referred to Semenya as transgender in its coverage; many argued that right-wing outlets were only using the ruling as an opportunity to rile up its viewership with a strawman debate about transgender athletes in sports.
In a statement to the New York Times through her lawyers, Semenya said she would likely appeal the CAS decision. “I know that the I.A.A.F.’s regulations have always targeted me specifically,” she said. “For a decade the I.A.A.F. has tried to slow me down, but this has actually made me stronger. 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.” She also posted a tweet: “Sometimes it’s better to react with no reaction,” accompanied by a shrugging emoji.