The highest court in international sports said on Wednesday in a landmark judgement amidst the controversial debate over who can compete in women’s events that female track athletes who have naturally elevated levels of testosterone now must mandatorily decrease the testosterone hormone to participate in certain races at major sporting competitions like the Olympics.
This decision comes as a huge blow to Caster Semenya, an amazing female athlete who has won the Olympics twice in the 800 meters race. She was the one who challenged the proposed limits placed on the female athletes, who naturally have elevated levels of testosterone- which is the muscle building hormone mainly found among male.
This comes as a shock to many, as at this time, the world is moving towards a culture of gender fluidity, and acceptance of the idea of how gender is fluid and not rigid. This move in such a time comes as a regressive decision, and it affirmed the belief that sports still needs distinct gender lines, and justified it by calling it fair on other women participating in the sporting events.“The gender studies folks have spent the last 20 years deconstructing sex and all of a sudden they’re facing an institution with an entirely opposite story,” said Doriane Lambelet Coleman, a law professor at Duke and an elite 800-meter runner in the 1980s who served as an expert witness for the track and field’s world governing body. “We have to ask, ‘Is respecting gender identity more important or is seeing female bodies on the podium more important?’”
Semenya’s biological orientation has been under the radar for over a decade, ever since she exploded on the scene at the 2009 world track and field championships and was forced to several sex tests following her victory.
In South Africa, the leaders thought the tests were a result of racism. The issue was however different and distinct from racism. It was about whether a rare biological trait that a woman has naturally was causing an unfair advantage for Semenya and for a small subset of women. This debate was quickly turned into a metamorphosis of greater issues like privacy and human rights, and Semenya became its symbol. She has said very little publicly about her specific biology condition except than stating that God made her the way she is. She emphasised on the idea that this was natural, and that these rules cannot be applied to someone who has been born with it.
In issuing its decision the Swiss-based Court of Arbitration for Sport addressed the complicated, highly debated question of involving fair play, gender identity, biology and human rights that track and field events and in general sporting completing have been grappling with for decades: Since sporting events are divided into male and female categories, what is the most equitable and fair way to decide who can compete in women’s events?
In a historic 2-to-1 decision, the court finally ruled that restriction on permitted levels of naturally occurring testosterone even though were discriminatory, but in such cases, discrimination was a “necessary, reasonable and proportionate means” of achieving track and field’s goal of preserving the integrity of the female competition.
It was argued that women with higher testosterone levels get an unfair advantage because they have more muscle mass which gives them more strength. This also helps them to have a more oxygen-carrying capacity which allows them to run faster without getting tires in comparison to other females participating in the same sport.
The 28-year-old Semenya issued a statement through her lawyers, saying: “I know that the I.A.A.F.’s regulations have always targeted me specifically. For a decade the I.A.A.F. has tried to slow me down, but this has actually made me stronger. The decision of the C.A.S. 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.”
Her lawyers said they might be heading towards a possible appeal against Wednesday’s decision, arguing that “her unique genetic gift should be celebrated, not regulated.” However, the case looks dim since Semenya can appeal to the Swiss Supreme Court on very narrow grounds since the rule has already been laid in writing.
If this rule is not overturned, then women like Semenya and Semenya herself will have take make some hard choices. If she wants to keep continuing in tournaments like 800 meters then she will have to take hormone-suppressing drugs that will reduce her testosterone below the five nanomoles per litre for six months before competing. She has to also maintain this level. If she doesn’t do so then she will not be allowed to continue her participation in the prestigious competitions like the Olympics for her preferred race.
Most women, including female athletes, have a natural testosterone level ranging anywhere from 0.12 to 1.79 nanomoles per litre, as reported by the I.A.A.F. Whereas, the testosterone levels found among male after they hit puberty ranges between 7.7 to 29.4 nanomoles per litre.
The problem, however, arose when some women are born this way, and they have nothing to do about it.
Semenya and her lawyers also argue that there has been no conclusive proof that increased levels of one particular hormone do actually give women any kind of significant competitive benefit. She argues that other factors like access to good coaches, training facilities and nutrition also give the same edge, and testosterone does not provide anything more than these factors do.
These new rules were also watched with peering eyes by transgender athletes and by the officials of the International Olympic Committee, as they are now going to set guidelines for the athletes in the 2020 Olympics to be held in Tokyo.
Transgender athletes, however, are not required to have surgeries to reassign their gender to participate in the Olympics, and those who have transitioned from female to male can easily compete in the sporting events without any restrictions.
Athletes transitioning from male to female must declare that their gender identity is female and, for sporting purposes, cannot rescind that declaration for four years. The athletes must also suppress their testosterone level below 10 nanomoles per litre for a year before becoming eligible for the Olympics. Wednesday’s ruling in the Semenya case, though, could prompt the I.O.C. to recommend that Olympic sports adopt the more restrictive cutoff of five nanomoles per litre.