The Caster Semenya vs IAAF Debate. “Necessary Discrimination”

3 min read

First of all, if you are trying to make this a situation based on race then I think you might need a new card to play. Reducing something as complicated as hormone levels in female athletes to be about skin colour doesn’t only make it harder to resolve the real issue being debated. It also makes it seem as though we could only look at something through the worst and most nationally convenient level instead of one of the very many other reasons it might be happening. 

This week the Court of Arbitration for Sport (which is the highest cards for international sports) ruled that discrimination against female track athletes with naturally high levels of testosterone Is “necessary to protect other female athletes “. Court’s decision to uphold the regulation put into place by the IAAF they are the governing body for track and field events in the world. The regulation requires female runners who have certain levels of testosterone to use Hormone suppressants to lower their levels. If those runners don’t, they will not be allowed to compete in certain races and major competitions like the Olympics.

As far as who brought this case to the CAS it was our very own Caster Semenya. She was asking the court to overturn the rule. Now Caster falls into this new category of athletes who need to take hormone suppressants because she has naturally high levels of testosterone. These regulations directly affect her because she will either have to comply with the regulation which could affect her performance or worse, these drugs do have side effects. The IAAF However believe that it is necessary to implement these regulations in order to create and a level playing field. They argue that athletes with DSD (Different Sexual Development), have an unfair advantage. They say that this is particularly true for women with high testosterone levels from women running in the 400 – 800m races. Higher testosterone levels have been proven to give you more muscle mass strength and a higher oxygen carrying capacity. 

The strange part about all this is that the CAS admitted that the regulations are discriminatory, but they still ruled in favour of it in a 2-1 decision. 

They decided that “such discrimination is a necessary, reasonable and proportionate means of achieving the legitimate objective of ensuring fair competition in female athletes in Saturn events and protecting the protective class or female athletes in those events” The court, however, did express “Serious concerns about the aspect of the practical application of the DSD regulation”. For example, what would happen if athletes are struggling to maintain this new hormone level even with the suppressant? Also that it might be impossible for some athletes to comply because of the major side-effects caused by the suppressants. CAS was Also concerned with the lack of evidence that DSD runners really do have a significant advantage but only in the long distance races like the 1.5km races and so regarding those specific races, the court asked the IAAF to consider not applying this rule to those specific races.

Let’s remember that this is not the first time Caster has had to deal with this kind of problem. Back in 2009 when she won a gold medal at the 800m at the track and field championships when she was 18, it sparked questions about her gender. This caused the IAAF to subject her to a gender verification test result in the IAAF banning her from competing for 11 months. 

The reason that this is back is clear. In 2011 the IAAF introduced illegibility rules for females who fell under the DSD category. Although this did not directly affect Caster, the role did disproportionately affect Other women. This caused the CAS to Overrule the regulation in 2015 after a female Indian sprinter who had been indefinitely banned brought it to the court. The strange thing about this new regulation is that it is no more than a stricter version of the older and overruled regulation. This has led some ask exactly what about this situation is different and why the court has called something as fundamentally detrimental as “discrimination” necessary.

These new regulations are also getting a lot of attention to the medical community. The WMA (World Medical Association) calling for doctors all over the world to not implement the rule. The president of WMA saying “We have strong reservations about the ethical validity of these regulations. They are based on weak evidence on a single study that is currently being widely debated in the scientific community.” How the IAAF and the CAS can continue making regulation based only on 1 study that does not have a general scientific consensus just means their findings are not scientifically accurate enough to enforce. This is about how IAAF feels and that is not good enough.

Dr. Leonid Eidelman 

Now it must be stated that support for the IAAF and CAS decision is there and there is plenty of it. Female runners like Paula Radcliff (world record holder in the women’s marathon) reportedly said she “respected CAS’s decision for the ruling that women’s sport needs rules to protect it”. 

For those on Caster’s side, there is still more that can be done. The case can be taken to Switzerland’ supreme court that has jurisdiction on the matter because the CAS is located in the country. ASA (Athletic South Africa) is looking into this option and even said “South Africa knows discrimination better and CAS has seen it fit to open the wounds of Apartheid, a system of discrimination condemned by the whole world as a crime against humanity”


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