Caster Semenya, a two-time Olympic champion and the subject of one of the biggest controversies the track and field world has seen, will have to take medications that suppress her testosterone output to continue competing at the sport’s highest levels.
That’s what the Court of Arbitration for Sport ruled Wednesday, upholding a controversial International Association of Athletics Federations rule targeting women who naturally produce high levels of testosterone.
Semenya had appealed to the court, challenging the rule.
By a 2-1 margin, a panel of three judges sided with the IAAF, allowing the sport’s international governing body to maintain its restrictions on athletes such as Semenya, a female competitor who is believed to have an intersex condition that causes her body to naturally produce testosterone at levels much higher than most women.
In issuing its decision, the court agreed that the IAAF rules are discriminatory, “but the majority of the Panel found 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,” the court said in a news release.
The controversial case had cast a spotlight on issues of women’s rights, fairness in sport and human rights, dividing many in the track and field world. At stake was whether the rule was fair to Semenya, one of the world’s most dominant middle-distance runners, and whether allowing Semenya to race with a demonstrative biological advantage was fair to her competitors.
Semenya, 28, has become a lightning rod of sorts on the track. She won gold in the 800 at the past two Olympics and is a three-time world champion but has faced scrutiny, raised eyebrows and skeptical whispers since winning her first world title at age 18.
"I know that the IAAF’s regulations have always targeted me specifically,” Semenya said in a statement Wednesday. “For a decade the IAAF has tried to slow me down, but this has actually made me stronger. The decision of the CAS 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 did not say whether she intended to comply with the IAAF rule to defend her world title later this year and potentially compete at the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo. Her lawyers said in a statement they will consider appealing the panel’s decision.
"Ms. Semenya believes that women like her should be respected and treated as any other athlete,” the statement read. “As is typically the case across sport, her unique genetic gift should be celebrated, not regulated.”
Semenya can still appeal to the Swiss Federal Tribunal within the next 30 days. If she chooses to compete in the world championships, which begin in September in Doha, Semenya must submit a valid sample with acceptable testosterone levels within the next week. While the IAAF rule applies to the 400-, 800-, and 1,500-meter events — Semenya’s primary races — the CAS judges say the IAAF should not yet apply the rules to the 1,500 “until more evidence is available.”
The ruling marks just the latest twist in a years-old tug-of-war between the IAAF and CAS. The court had previously suspended an IAAF rule in June 2015, eliminating any caps on acceptable testosterone levels but giving the IAAF an opportunity to further explore the issue.
The IAAF then commissioned a scientific study and last April announced the controversial new regulations. The governing body sought to require any athlete who has a Difference of Sexual Development (DSD) to lower her testosterone levels to compete against women in the world’s biggest track and field events.
“The IAAF is grateful to the Court of Arbitration for Sport for its detailed and prompt response to the challenge made to its Eligibility Regulations for the Female Classification for athletes with differences of sex development,” the governing body said Wednesday in a statement, “and is pleased that the Regulations were found to be a necessary, reasonable and proportionate means of achieving the IAAF’s legitimate aim of preserving the integrity of female athletics in the Restricted Events.”
The IAAF contended that it had compiled data showing testosterone “either naturally produced or artificially inserted into the body, provides significant performance advantages in female athletes.” The organization said heightened testosterone levels could improve performance by 5 percent or more.
Athletes impacted by the rule must lower their testosterone levels to below 5 nmol/L and maintain that reduced level continuously for at least six months before a competition.
Semenya had long been the public face of the issue and the subject of much media speculation. She’s a three-time world champion in the 800 and took gold at both the 2012 London Olympics and the Rio Games four years later. Last June, racing in Paris, Semenya posted her best-ever 800 time — a blistering 1:54.25 mark that was the fastest any woman had run in nearly a decade and currently stands fourth on the all-time list.
The new rule was aimed only races contested at 400, 800 and 1,500 meters, which further cast the spotlight on Semenya. Along with her national federation, Semenya challenged the rule, which many in track circles took as confirmation that she has an intersex condition that causes her body to produce high levels of testosterone.
Semenya has said little publicly about her condition but in protesting the matter to CAS last June, she issued a statement, saying, “I am very upset that I have been pushed into the public spotlight again. I don’t like talking about this new rule. I just want to run naturally, the way I was born. It is not fair that I am told I must change. It is not fair that people question who I am. I am Mokgadi Caster Semenya. I am a woman and I am fast.”
Her legal team characterized the rule as “discriminatory, irrational, unjustifiable,” and Semenya challenged the IAAF on multiple grounds, saying the organization’s rules “continue the offensive practice of intrusive surveillance and judging of women’s bodies which has historically haunted women’s sports.”
The court held a hearing on the matter in February and originally planned to issue a decision by March 26, though the court later pushed back that date.