By Freddie Bennett | Sport Editor
South African athlete Caster Semenya has lost her appeal against the restrictions of testosterone levels in female athletes.
On September 8, 29- year- old former 800m Olympic gold medalist Semenya filed an appeal to Switzerland’s Federal Supreme Court. This was after a rule change last year by World Athletics which stated that female athletes with differences in their sexual development (DSD) should have to take testosterone reducing medication in order to compete in middle-distance athletics events. However, many people feel that these rule changes punish athletes who have not cheated or done anything wrong and target people for their differences.
Semenya has been a person of controversy but also great athletic success in recent years. In 2008 she won a gold medal in her favored 800m distance at the Commonwealth Youth games. Following this in 2009, Semenya won both 800m and 1500m races in the African Junior Championships.
Though following this success came the beginnings of the controversy surrounding her gender and sexual development. In late 2009 she was forced to do a Sexual Verification test after questions had been raised about her gender and testosterone levels. After her success, many felt suspicious that Semenya could have been taking drugs to improve her performance.
Despite taking the test and being cleared to compete for South Africa some months later in the summer of 2010, the question of her sexual identity still lingered around track athletics. However, two years later at the London Olympics, Semenya was chosen to carry her nation’s flag at the Opening Ceremony. This prestigious moment for the runner shows the support her country had for the athlete who had been through a very difficult period of her career. As well as this, in London, Semenya won silver in the 800m. This was later upgraded to a gold medal after the winner of the race Mariya Savinova was found to have broken doping violations and had her gold medal given to second place Semenya.
Nevertheless, with all her success came growing questions over levels of testosterone in female athletes. The similar case of the Indian athlete Dutee Chand in 2015 raised questions over the approach that the International Amateur Athletic Federation (IAAF) had taken to issues such as female testosterone levels.
Chand had been a successful athlete for India in 2014 until she was dropped by the Indian athletics governing body. They had suggested that she had hyperandrogenism (a higher level of testosterone in females) and was therefore unable to compete as a female athlete.
Following her lawsuit at the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) in 2015, it was decided that the IAAF policy on hyperandrogenism should be suspended due to a lack of evidence to suggest that a slightly higher level of testosterone can improve performance by a clear enough margin. The CAS decided that the IAAF had to find more evidence to support its claims.
Though in 2018, the IAAF made its newest policy change which Semenya is still fighting to overturn. Effective May 2019, female athletes with DSD would have to take testosterone reducing medication in order to compete in middle distance athletics events. This means that Semenya either needs to switch distances or take the medication to allow her to race in her favored middle- distance events.
There are many issues surrounding these rule changes which put athletes such as Semenya in an unimaginable position. The various athletics governing bodies are now punishing those who have not committed any offense.
If Semenya or Chand had purposefully injected themselves with higher levels of testosterone in order to improve their performance, then the punishment may better fit the crime. However, with no crime being committed it appears difficult to see why these talented athletes are not able to race in the same way that other athletes are allowed to race. Simply because of their sexual development, which cannot really be blamed on them.
Moreover, if there are certain levels of femininity that female athletes must adhere to in order to compete then where are the levels of masculinity that male athletes have to follow?
The legendary American athlete Michael Phelps produces just half the lactic acid of a regular athlete. As lactic acid causes fatigue and tiredness he has a biological advantage in his sport as he will not tire as quickly. Yet, Phelps is considered a legend by the same governing bodies that have targeted Semenya for her biological makeup. This double standard keeps global athletics bodies from celebrating diversity, by actually vilifying these differences.
With gender nowadays being a controversial topic, one would hope that the global athletics governing bodies would move with the times and dismiss these rigid regulations on what constitutes gender.
Yet, much like plenty of other examples in sport, this issue can be closely related to success. Semenya and Chand are athletes who have won gold medals and championship races but have been targeted for this. They have passed tests and overcome more than just the hurdles on the track to compete. Therefore, one can hope that in the future the powers that be will enable athletes to compete and be successful in their sports without the matter of their gender being questioned when reaching these great achievements.