“Brilliant.” “Class of her own.” “Dominant.” “Silky smooth, serene style.” For sports commentators, there seems no superlative too strong to describe Caster Semenya. Semenya is a world-class middle-distance runner and a female Olympic gold medalist from South Africa. But in spite of her athletic talents, she has recently been under fire for her hyperandrogenic qualities, which means she has higher testosterone levels than most women.
In May of 2019, the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS), based in Switzerland, ruled that Semenya and athletes like her will have to medically reduce their testosterone levels in order to compete in international women’s events like the Olympics. Semenya appealed. However, on Tuesday, September 8, her appeal was overturned by the Swiss Supreme Court, effectively squandering any chance for Semenya to defend her title in her signature 800m event at the 2021 Tokyo Olympics. Her only choice would be to take hormone lowering agents or have surgery.
This is a global outrage that extends far beyond the realm of sports. The Swiss Court ruling limits bodily autonomy and places unfair and excessive restrictions on women. It punishes people with healthy and natural bodies for traits that are entirely out of their control.
Semenya emerged onto the world athletics scene in 2009 as an 18-year-old, when she won gold in the 800m at the World Championships in Berlin; since then, she has been the target of constant harassment and controversy.
“These kind of people should not run with us,” Semenya’s competitor Elisa Cusma said after the race. “She is a man.”
World Athletics, the international governing body for sport, sidelined Semenya from competitions and subjected her to invasive sex-verification tests—which were then leaked to the public—purely because fellow competitors and observors thought she seemed too masculine. The public humiliatingly speculated about the most intimate details of Semenya’s body.
Semenya’s harassment is rooted in more than the mere grudges of sore losers. Semenya is a Black South African. She is married to a woman. Elizabeth Abedita wrote in SB Nation that “World Athletics remains committed to a centuries-old, white supremacist notion that defines ‘womanhood’ in terms of the white, cis-gendered female body, rendering everyone else, especially women of African descent, socially unacceptable aberrations.”
There are examples of this stereotype in all sectors. Serena Williams has been accused of being “born a man.” Michelle Obama was ridiculed for her strong, “masculine” arms. Simone Biles was told her muscles made her “look like a man.” Claire Rudy Foster wrote in Allure that it is no coincidence that so many prominent Black women have been compared to men: these claims “are based on white fears of being not-as-good as Black women.”
As World Athletics has used the testosterone teleology as a means to negate Semenya’s dominance, many have noted that the case is reminiscent of racist pseudoscience. The myths of biological talents and unfair advantages have been used to dismiss and dehumanize Black athletes for centuries.
CAS’s statements reveal a flagrant disregard of accepted human rights norms, so much so that the ruling reads like a parody unto itself. In 2019, CAS noted that their ruling was in fact discriminatory towards Semenya, but that “such discrimination is a necessary, reasonable and proportionate means of achieving [World Athletics’s] aim of preserving the integrity of female athletics.”
In their statement overturning Semenya’s appeal, the Swiss court said that medical examinations (carried out by World Athletics appointed doctors) are “under no circumstances against the will of the female athletes who can refuse treatment.” Semenya’s lawyers believe that statement reveals a total misconception of voluntary consent according to human rights principles. Athletes can refuse treatment out of their own free will, only if they give up the opportunity to compete as an international athlete and their livelihoods—which is really no choice at all.
It may seem reassuring that the court stressed it did not “question in any way the female sex of implicated female athletes.” But if officials are really true to their words, it means that the court recognizes Semenya as a woman but refuses to let her run as one.
World Athletics and the Swiss Court repeatedly asserted that a woman can only be defined as female and enjoy success if she has an arbitrary amount of testosterone. In doing this, they have turned the hormone into something it is not: a myth of male greatness.
No male athlete has ever been punished for having elevated testosterone, even though hormone levels vary greatly amongst male athletes. When there is a numerical cap on supposedly male characteristics to determine what is feminine, it defines women’s value in terms of their proximity to masculine features. The ruling suggests that Semenya is not an incredible athlete because of her powerful work ethic and training, or because of her persistence, through which she has overcome the ridicule of racism, sexism, and homophobia to succeed on the world stage, or because while the world was gossiping about her sex organs, she won 31 consecutive races; instead, World Athletics has said again and again that Semenya’s success comes solely from her proximity to masculinity.
However, testosterone is not a male hormone—it’s a human one. All human beings have testosterone in their bodies. While the hormone is linked to muscle growth and the development of male sexual characteristics, it is also essential for a healthy brain, liver, and metabolic functions in everyone. Semenya just has more testosterone than an average woman (but nowhere close to the levels of an average man).
To force Semenya into the average standard is counter to the very spirit of athletic competition. Elite athletics has never celebrated normality. The very motto of the Olympic Games is citius, altius, fortius—faster, higher, stronger.
Nobody barred Shaquille O’Neal from playing in the NBA because he is 7’2” and towered over his competitors. Nobody said Michael Phelps couldn’t swim in the Olympics because of his massive wingspan or his double-jointed ankles or the fact that his body produces half the lactic acid of the average athlete. Just like Semenya, Phelps has a biological, molecular advantage in his sport, but his biology is treated like a blessing—not a monstrosity. People write about Phelps as “the man who was built to be a swimmer” and use him as an example of a prime athlete, such that “New Research on Sports Stars Reveals Biology is Destiny.” Why doesn’t Caster Semenya get to be the woman who was born to be a runner?
Why do we celebrate male athletes with physical advantages but punish women for being too good? World Athletics aimed to “preserve the integrity of female athletics,” but I implore us to think about the integrity of athletics. Is there integrity in an organization that medicates an individual when there is nothing medically wrong with them and has the audacity to call those procedures a “treatment?” Is there integrity in an organization that agrees their ruling is discriminatory, yet makes the call anyway?
Last year, I spoke to Julie Dorf, the lead advisor to the Equality Without Borders Individual Donor Initiative. Dorf used her perspective as a human rights activist to counsel the donors who funded Caster’s defense. Dorf told me that one out of every 2,000 people on this planet has some variation that makes them not “traditionally female” or “traditionally male,” including anatomical, hormonal, or genetic differences. If you do the math, that’s about 3.905 million people. The Swiss Court and World Athletics rulings suggest that the bodies of people outside of the incredibly tight bounds of traditional sex are somehow illegitimate and unfair.
If Semenya chooses to keep fighting, her team may consider challenging the Swiss Court’s decision in a body that recognizes international human rights such as the European Court of Human Rights.
Semenya’s endurance and indomitable stride are evident on and off the track. “A man can change the rules but the very same man can not rule my life,” Semenya said on Twitter. She stressed that this is not the end of her career. “Doors might be closed [but] not locked.”
When asked how she felt about not running her signature event, Semenya said, “I make 800m, 800m doesn’t make me.”
It seems Semenya is too brave, too strong, too fast.
The world just seems unable to keep up.
(Adapted in part from “Restricting Semenya is Sexist and Violates Human Rights,” written as part of the Rising Voices Fellowship)