In a ruling that transcends any sporting precedent, the Court of Arbitration for Sport went against the appeal of two-time Olympic gold medalist Caster Semenya May 1. The case Semenya was arguing was with the International Association of Athletics Federation. Semenya was trying to prevent the ushering in of new regulations designed to limit testosterone levels for athletes with a difference in sexual development.
This dispute has long been a problem, with gender testing of women in the sport of track and field dating back to the 1930s with an athlete on Germany’s female track team to being found to be biologically male. After creating an initial set of sex verification regulations in the 1960s, it took decades of controversy until a clearer set of gender regulations were released.
Back in 2009, the then 18-year-old Caster Semenya shocked the global community by winning the women’s 800-meter gold medal at the World Championships in Berlin. What immediately followed the victory for Semenya was a two-step gender verification process: one in Berlin and one back at her home in South Africa.
Finally in 2011, the IAAF released a new set of regulations for the situation to seem settled. However, those regulations quickly came under fire in 2015 when the Indian sprinter Dutee Chand was barred from competing in the World Championships — despite having competed in the Olympics — due to her naturally high levels of testosterone. Chand won her case in 2015, proving that there wasn’t enough evidence to show that high testosterone levels were linked with an advantage in competition.
The IAAF rules remained the same until April 2018, when a new set of regulations was rolled out. The sporting world first heard the term “Restricted Events,” which describes specific track and field events in which female athletes with a difference in sexual development have a significant advantage. The events ranged from the 400 meters to the one mile, including of course Semenya’s premier event, the 800 meters. Semenya, who hasn’t lost an 800-meter race in over four years, is the primary reason for these new regulations to exist.
If there is anything that can make this situation seem even more controversial, it is who Semenya is as a person: a gay black woman who was born and raised in South Africa. Instead of respecting and admiring Semenya’s natural abilities that go hand-in-hand with her hard training practices, the sport of track and field has decided to take away her ability to freely compete.
Semenya most certainly isn’t the only athlete who has felt this level of discrimination. According to a Vox article about the ruling, people have been comparing Semenya’s case to Saartjie Baartman, an African woman who was toured in freak shows in Europe in the 19th century. Semenya’s body structure, background and skin color don’t align with the gender norms of female athletes in track and field.
She isn’t a lean, lithe figure effortlessly gliding around the track like American track stars Allyson Felix, Sanya Richards-Ross or Tori Bowie. She isn’t the perfect mix of power and grace like Olympic gold medalist and Jamaican sprinter Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce. Semenya is built the way she is and trains her body to use it to the best of her abilities, with a stronger upper body and a powerful stride.
She has been subjected to gender testing, gender verification, controversy and suspicion from the worldwide public for the past decade. This final ruling is the hammer on the discriminatory nail for Semenya, regardless of how hard she has tried to advocate for her natural body. It calls into question, once again, why women are held to such a double standard in the world of sports.
The Washington Post, in response to the ruling, wrote an article discussing the difference of opinion on a male athlete when he has an absolute genetic advantage. In the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, China, American swimmer Michael Phelps took home eight gold medals. He was heralded as one of the greatest athletes of the decade, and has since become the most decorated Olympian of all time with a total of 28 medals.
An article by The Telegraph back in 2014 detailed just how perfect Phelps’ body is for swimming. From his unnaturally large wingspan to his incredibly flexible ankles and his double-jointed chest, Phelps’ body was destined for the water. Then the real kicker is thrown in: Michael Phelps’ body was producing less than half of the lactic acid of his competitors. This gave him a distinct advantage because his body gets less tired when exerting the same amount of energy than other swimmers.
As the sporting world rejoiced over Phelps’ bodily capabilities, where did they fall off the road with supporting Semenya? Just a year removed from the Phelps-filled euphoria, Semenya stepped into the world spotlight only to immediately be questioned. Why must women be treated differently when both men and women have genetic advantages? In the world of elite athletes, almost everyone is genetically ahead of the curve, so why ostracize anyone at all?
What the CAS’ ruling means for athletes with a difference in sex development like Semenya is that she will have to take testosterone-lowering medication to continue to comepte at the international level. However, Semenya does not plan on taking the medication at all.
Just days after hearing the ruling, Semenya raced in Doha, Qatar at the opening stop on the Diamond League track and field circuit, running her last eligible 800-meter race before the regulations were enacted.
Semenya stormed to victory, running a 1:54.98 and winning her 30th straight 800-meter race in a row. It was the fourth-best time of her career and the eighth-fastest 800 meter time ever run by a woman on an outdoor track.
“Actions speak louder than words. When you are a great champion, you always deliver … No man, or any other human, can stop me from running,” Semenya said in an interview after the race in Doha.
While Semenya has yet to say where she will go next with the sport, the belief is that she does not plan to retire.
“It doesn’t matter how I’m going to do it. What matters is I’ll still be here,” Semenya said when asked about retirement.