Caster Semenya will be forced to take hormone medication if she is to defend her Olympic 800m title after losing her bid to overturn controversial athletics testosterone regulations in a landmark decision that dismissed multiple requests to protect the South African’s human rights.
The Court of Arbitration for Sport (Cas) on Wednesday announced Semenya had been unsuccessful in challenging the rules imposed by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), which limit the amount of testosterone women can have in track events from 400m to the mile.
Semenya, a double Olympic and triple world 800m champion, had described the rules targeting women with naturally high levels of the hormone – termed athletes with Differences of Sexual Development (DSD) – as “unfair” and said she wanted to “run naturally, the way I was born”.
Numerous organisations worldwide had come out in support of Semenya. The United Nations Human Rights Council, Human Rights Watch, Women’s Sport Foundation and South African government were among those to have condemned the rules, largely focusing on the regulation and scrutiny of women’s bodies for no health benefit.
This week the World Medical Association also called on physicians around the world to play no part in implementing the regulations.
However, the Cas, which sits in Lausanne, Switzerland, decided to side with the IAAF, who funded a study alongside the World Anti-Doping Agency, which found women with raised testosterone levels received a sizeable advantage over those with conventional levels at the 2011 and 2013 World Championships - a boost of up to three per cent in certain track events.
Those results – which have been disputed by some independent experts – prompted the sport’s governing body to impose regulations on women with naturally occurring elevated testosterone if they want to compete internationally over distances from 400m to the mile.
IAAF president Seb Coe recently suggested there is evidence of athletes’ representatives actively looking for DSD athletes, such is their physical advantage, and insisted the rule was to ensure “fair and meaningful competition for all of our athletes”.
The organisation’s lawyer, Jonathan Taylor, also insisted that without regulations, DSD women would “dominate the podiums and prize money in sport”, denying others with regular levels of testosterone any chance of victory. Semenya’s camp dismissed such comments as “absurd” and “fearmongering”.
The South African’s performances dipped noticeably under previous testosterone regulations in place from 2011 to 2015 and she now must decide how she intends to continue her athletics career.
She will only be allowed to defend her world 800m title at the World Championships later this year if she immediately begins a course of medication similar to the contraceptive pill. The same applies for next year’s Olympics.
Another option is to step up to the 5000m – a distance not covered by the IAAF testosterone rules. Semenya began her outdoor season with victories over 1500m and 5000m at the South African Championships last week, later tweeting: “I change events just like that.”
Although both parties had previously agreed to honour the Cas verdict, routes of appeal and other courts of law remain options should Semenya decide to challenge the decision.
Wednesday’s court ruling does not only affect Semenya. A number of other athletes will be affected by the proposed rules, including her closest rival, Olympic and world 800m silver medallist Francine Niyonsaba, who described it as “discrimination” when speaking about the issue for the first time last month.