LONDON – A court ruling against South Africa’s “golden girl” Caster Semenya and some other female runners begs the question of whether the international track and field association is prejudiced against athletes from the global south and women more generally.
In a landmark decision, the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) ruled last week that female track athletes with naturally elevated levels of testosterone must reduce the hormone to participate in certain races at major competitions.
The decision effectively bars Semenya, a two-time Olympic champion in the 800-metres, from competing in that race unless she represses her body’s production of testosterone, which is much higher than that of a typical female.
“I am a woman and I am fast”
Growing up in Limpopo, where she was raised as a girl and identified as female, Semenya often faced discrimination at races, where she was occasionally forced to show athletics officials her genitals to prove she was a female.
As she grew up and the victories rolled in, she has had to defend herself and her gender on the world stage, dismissing allegations that she is really a man. “I am a woman and I am fast,” she has said, in words that have resonated among intersex athletes around the world.
Despite her glittering career, Semenya lost her appeal at the CAS, which came down in favour of the International Association of Athletics Foundations (IAAF) on 1 May.
The court said that although the ruling was discriminatory, it was “a necessary, reasonable and proportionate means of achieving the IAAF’s aim of preserving the integrity of female athletics.”
“Paucity of evidence”
After the ruling, the IAAF reiterated its position, saying Semenya should be classified as “biologically male” because of the levels of testosterone in her body. It said that female athletes with high testosterone levels have an advantage of up to nine percent over women with normal levels of the hormone.
The IAAF says its assertions are supported by evidence, referring to research produced in 2017 by scientists affiliated with the athletics body.
The study concluded that women with high testosterone performed as much as three percent better than those with lower testosterone in a handful of events.
It’s not clear where the IAAF’s nine-percent figure has come from.
But in February, research led by the University of Colorado at Boulder suggested the IAAF regulations were based on flawed science.
"We found problematic data throughout the study, and consequently the conclusions can't be seen as reliable," lead author Roger Pielke said, commenting on the IAAF’s 2017 student.
The three-member team of researchers looked at the IAAF’s work and found performance times that were erroneously duplicated and "phantom times" that did not exist in official competition results. Some athletes disqualified for doping were included in the 2017 dataset - a fact that could mar the results.
The new research calls into question the supposed correlation between high natural testosterone and better performance.
Even if the research by IAAF scientists were correct, does it provide a strong rationale for new regulations?
The 2017 research showed that the biggest differences between women with normal testosterone levels and those with abnormally high ones were in hammer throw and pole vault events. The three running events that the study examined – 400 metres, 400-metre hurdles and 800 metres - showed much less variation between the two groups.
Yet, the new regulations will impact only track events. The 1,500-metre and the mile, which were not analysed, will also face testosterone restrictions.
The CAS admitted to a “paucity of evidence” to back up some of the IAAF’s new regulations, but it approved them anyway.
“Acting in a prejudicial manner”
South Africa’s ruling party, the African National Congress (ANC), came out in support of Semenya after the court decision, stating that the IAAF had acted in a “prejudicial manner that divides rather than unites athletes.”
Indeed, the new regulations stipulate that females must have testosterone within certain predefined levels, but they say nothing about men who have higher than normal quantities of the hormone.
What is more, professional athletes by nature are abnormal. The vast majority of the world’s population is unable to pull off the feats of these extraordinary humans, and often there is good reason for that. Biological advantages among athletes are widespread.
Nordic skier Eero Mäntyranta had a genetic condition that caused the excessive production of red blood cells, which gave him an advantage in endurance events.
Michael Phelps, the most successful Olympian of all time with 28 gold medals, has preternaturally low lactic acid production and joint hyperextension that allows him to swim longer and faster than many others.
Even if Semenya’s higher-than-normal testosterone levels were an advantage, would they be any more useful to her than the biological assets of so many other athletes?
It is the different approach to different advantages that creates the impression that this case is about much more than fairness in sport.
What is it about the sight of a black female, who comes from the global south, being successful that concerns the IAAF?
It is hard to see why the athletics body would have a specific vendetta against Semenya, yet one could be excused for seeing it as discrimination against both her gender and her background.
Not least because Semenya is not the first female athlete from the global south to be targeted by such regulations. Indian sprinter Dutee Chand battled with the IAAF in 2014-2015 over testosterone regulations.
An IAAF official’s remarks in 2012 underscored geographical bias in the initiatives against intersex athletes. “Athletics is a whole world sport, it is not purely the Caucasian sports,” the official said. ”We have a lot of people coming from Africa, Asia, and we have a lot of these [intersex] cases coming from these countries”.
Perhaps the ANC’s assertion in 2018 that attempts to eliminate Semenya from her best races were indicative of “blatant racism” within the IAAF were not that far off the mark.
The CAS should defend the anomalies in their decision-making and explain why they have come down against such an impressive athlete, humiliating her and undermining the integrity of the sport it should defend.
African News Agency (ANA)/News-Decoder
* Jessica Moody is an ESRC-funded PhD candidate in the War Studies department at Kings College London. She is researching post-conflict peacebuilding in Cote d'Ivoire and will be living there from October 2017- December 2018. Jessica also works as a freelance political risk analyst focusing on west and central Africa. She has written reports for IHS, the Economist Intelligence Unit, The FT's “This is Africa” publication and African Arguments.