A new regulation effective this week bars elite track and field athletes with certain testosterone levels from competing in women’s races. The rule could end the career of a dominant force in female track and field—South African Olympic champion Caster Semenya.
In early 2018, the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), the governing body of track and field, issued eligibility rules for female runners with 46 XY DSD, a category of disorders of sexual development in which individuals have ambiguous or female external genitalia but XY chromosomes and testes that produce testosterone levels equal to those of some men. The rule requires individuals with these rare genetic conditions to take medication to reduce their levels of testosterone to compete in the 400-meter, 800-meter, and 1,500-meter races at international athletic competitions.
Already established rules bar elite athletes from injecting or ingesting testosterone. The new regulation sets a maximum for female athletes with naturally elevated levels of testosterone. Most athletes with 46 XY DSD would exceed that maximum unless they took medication to lower the amount of the hormone in their bodies.
Semenya, 28, a two-time Olympic gold medal winner in the 800 meters, appealed the rule to the Court of Arbitration for Sport in Lausanne, Switzerland, in late 2018. “I just want to run naturally, the way I was born,” she said. A three-judge panel spent five days scrutinizing evidence in her case in February. Semenya’s attorneys argued the regulation has shoddy scientific backing and unfairly discriminates against her.
On May 1, the court issued a 2-1 ruling rejecting Semenya’s appeal and upholding the regulation. The court called the rule discriminatory but argued the discrimination was a “necessary, reasonable, and proportionate” means of achieving fair competition in female athletics.
The purpose of the male-female divide in sports competitions “is to protect individuals whose bodies have developed in a certain way following puberty from having to compete against individuals who, by virtue of their bodies having developed in a different way following puberty, possess certain physical traits that create such a significant performance advantage that fair competition between the two groups is not possible,” the court explained in an executive summary of the ruling. (The complete 165-page verdict is being kept confidential due to sensitive medical information about Semenya.)
Critics have decried the ruling as unfair and abusive to Semenya and other women with disorders of sex development. But supporters argue the ruling is a “victory for female athletes everywhere.” Writing for the online journal Quillette last week, Duke Law School professor and former 800-meter runner Doriane Coleman said natural testosterone levels are a good and proper way to separate male and female athletes for competition. Men have greater lean body mass, larger hearts, more ability to take in oxygen, and higher anaerobic capacity than women primarily because of exposure to higher testosterone levels during puberty. Coleman pointed to the fact that in 2017 alone, 15,000 boys and men clocked times faster than the female world champion in the 400-meter race.
The new IAAF regulation is a loud contradiction to a culture increasingly taken with the notion that sex is not binary and that individual perceptions should be the guiding principal for gender identity. “You tell the world who you are and the world has to deal with it,” Albert Mohler, president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and a WORLD News Group board member, said on his podcast, The Briefing. “Except evidently the world’s not going to deal with it when it comes to international sports … because at least for now, the Olympics movement has decided that if it’s going to have male and female events it better have some kind of rough idea who is a man and who is a woman.”
Semenya has said she will not take medication to lower her testosterone levels. Unless the ruling is overturned, she won her final 800-meter race on May 3 in Doha, Qatar, days before the new rules became effective. The victory was her 30th straight win in the event since late 2015.
Semenya’s attorneys have 30 days to appeal the Court of Arbitration for Sports ruling to the Supreme Court of Switzerland in Lausanne. They have not yet said if they plan to do so.