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Here's What’s at Stake in the Caster Semenya Case

The IAAF is worried about “losing the next generation of female athletes.” Here's a breakdown of both sides of the debate.

Pick your villain.  (Photo: Michael Dodge/Getty Images)
caster semenya

Should a female athlete’s natural testosterone levels determine whether or not she gets to compete as a woman? For many people the question itself may sound like the premise from a dystopian sports novel. But that is the core issue in a divisive case that was heard last week by the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) in which the South African 800-meter runner Caster Semenya took on the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF). A decision is expected by March 26, and the stakes couldn’t be higher.

Here’s the short version of where things stand: Semenya, who is the two-time defending Olympic gold medalist in her event, is seeking to appeal an IAAF policy that would cap female athlete testosterone levels at five nanomoles per liter. (According to the governing body, most women, including elite athletes, have testosterone levels between 0.12 and 1.79 nmol/L. A previous, IAAF-sponsored, study found the 99th percentile for T concentration for female athletes to be at 3.08 nmol/L. Semenya’s T-levels aren’t publicly known, but are likely to be substantially higher.)

If the new policy is implemented, hyperandrogenic athletes like Semenya—whom the IAAF is classifying as athletes with “Differences of Sexual Development” (DSD)—would be required to artificially reduce their T-levels if they wish to compete against other women. (The rule would only apply to women wishing to compete in the 400-meters, 400-meter hurdles, 800-meters, 1,500-meters, and the mile.) In a press release last week, the IAAF stated that these new rules were “necessary to ensure fair competition for all women,” and that failing to implement them would increase the risk of “losing the next generation of female athletes.” In response, Semenya’s lawyers issued a statement dismissing the proposed regulations as “another flawed and hurtful attempt to police the sex of female athletes.” 

While both camps claim to be acting in good faith, the optics here really don’t favor the IAAF. A gay woman of color (Semenya is married to a woman), who was born in rural apartheid-era South Africa, defies the odds to become the most dominant middle distance runner in a generation. Maybe ever. She is at the apex of her athletic career when a powerful, Monaco-based sports federation led by a British white guy decrees that she needs to take a hormone suppressant to continue competing as a woman. Pick your villain. 

Here are the arguments that will likely determine the outcome of the case. 

The Case For: It Makes Sense to Designate Gender By Testosterone Levels  

Prior to the CAS hearing, the IAAF announced that it would be calling on a “team of experts” to help make its case. Among them was Doriane Lambert Coleman, a professor at Duke Law School. Last year, Coleman published an op-ed in defense of the new regulations, in which she argued that, when it comes to assessing the competitive advantage that men have over women in pro track and field, “there is no characteristic that matters more than testes and testosterone.” Hence, Coleman claims that it makes sense to define gender categories according to testosterone levels. While Coleman recognizes the necessity of non-binary gender definitions in other social arenas, she insists that, at least in the context of competitive sports, clear lines are necessary to ensure fairness. 

The Case Against: The IAAF Is Using Flawed Science

Despite alluding to the “well-documented” performance advantages conferred by testosterone, Coleman doesn’t cite any specific studies in her article. This is significant because the outcome of the CAS case will likely hinge on the IAAF’s ability to clearly demonstrate how high testosterone not only confers an athletic advantage but, crucially, is also the clearest indicator of the athletic advantage that male athletes have over women. Proponents of the T regulations argue that this is what makes high testosterone levels different from the other natural advantages enjoyed by gifted athletes. Depending on how the case unfolded, the IAAF may also have been required to prove the degree to which high-T specifically benefits DSD athletes. 

In the past, the IAAF’s scientific evidence has looked shaky. Last summer, a number of academics criticized the governing body for basing its new testosterone rules on bogus data sets. (I wrote about this in greater detail at the time.) Among them was Professor Roger Pielke Jr., who testified on Semenya’s behalf in the CAS case last week and who just co-authored a paper criticizing the IAAF’s “flawed scientific foundation.”  

The Case For: Regulating Testosterone Opens the Door For Trans Athletes

In her Times article, Coleman writes that, “Using testosterone as a proxy for sex may seem like subterfuge, but it’s not. If it were really sex that mattered and not testosterone, then athletes who had gone through puberty as biological males would be categorically banned from the women’s category as they used to be.” 

It’s an argument that anticipates the potential long-term ramifications of the CAS case. As reported by the Guardian, the International Olympic Committee is waiting on the verdict of Semenya’s appeal before it sets testosterone limits for transgender athletes at next summer’s Olympics. The outcome of the case, in other words, will deliver a verdict on the whole concept of using testosterone as a barometer for gender classification. Since T levels can be artificially adjusted, Coleman seems to be suggesting that this approach would ultimately be more inclusive to trans athletes. 

The Case Against: Human Rights Always Trump Athletic Fairness

Of course, despite what some rather misleading op-ed articles might have you believe, Semenya is not a trans athlete. Since the CAS case is first and foremost about her right to continue competing as a woman without being forced to alter her physical makeup, the trans argument may be secondary. 

Indeed, arguing that this is a human rights issue, rather than a question of athletic fairness, is perhaps the strongest point in Semenya’s favor. The IAAF is adamant that its new rules would not be forcing DSD athletes to take hormone suppressants—after all, they are free to compete against men, or, you know, quit—but that is a difficult position for the governing body to defend. 

No matter how they spin it, if the IAAF’s new testosterone rules are validated next month, it will result in other female athletes being ostracized from elite-level international athletics. (According to the IAAF’s own study, the prevalence of DSD women in elite athletics was “at least” 7 out of 1000 athletes—although, as mentioned above, this study may be flawed. This week, the German broadcaster ARD reported that there are at least nine other DSD athletes who are currently competing in professional athletics.) 

“This is not all about me. I’ve achieved everything that I want in life,” Semenya said in a statement leading up to her CAS appeal. “If I let this thing go on, you know what about the next generation? You know it’s killing them. What about those young girls who still want to run who are maybe in the same situation as mine.”

Filed To: AthletesGenderScienceTrack and Field
Lead Photo: Michael Dodge/Getty Images
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