By Trevann Hamilton
If you’re familiar with track and field then you’re bound to know of Caster Semenya. Semenya is a South African middle-distance runner and has excelled at the 400m, 800m and 1500m events. From 2016-2019 she has been ranked #1 in the world for the 800m. Semenya is also a two-time Olympic champion.
Semenya has popped up in the news cycle recently because of a recent court ruling. According to an Associated Press (AP) article, Switzerland’s supreme court has rejected Caster Semenya’s appeal against a Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) ruling. The rejection of the appeal, and thus the ruling, means the two-time Olympic champion will have to miss the next Olympic games unless she agrees to lower her testosterone levels through surgery or medication.
According to World Athletic’s policy, any athlete with differences of sex development (DSD), should have their testosterone levels lowered for at least six months before participation in particular events. According to ESPN, these athletes would have to “lower their naturally occurring testosterone levels to five nanomoles per liter (nmol/L)”
According to the AP article, Caster Semenya was lowering her testosterone levels in the past. She took birth control for five years but laments that there were side effects and that the medication makes her injury-prone. The world track body at the time had suspended the hyperandrogenism ruling because of a CAS appeal by Indian sprinter Dutee Chand.
For women like Semanya with “genetic variant 46 XY DSD”, they can lower their testosterone in three ways, according to AP. They may do this by “taking birth control pills, having testosterone-blocking injections, or undergoing surgery.”
Caster Semenya does not agree with the ruling. She was quoted in AP saying, “I am very disappointed by this ruling, but refuse to let World Athletics drug me or stop me from being who I am.” She continued by saying “Excluding female athletes or endangering our health solely because of our natural abilities puts World Athletics on the wrong side of history.”
Semenya is not done fighting. According to the AP article, she said, “I will continue to fight for the human rights of female athletes, both on the track and off the track, until we can all run free the way we were born. I know what is right and will do all I can to protect basic human rights, for young girls everywhere.”
She is now training for the 200m, where she can compete without lowering her testosterone levels.
So was the decision fair?
Caster Semenya identifies as a woman and runs in the women’s category but people take issue with the fact that she has XY chromosomes. It is believed by many and the court that since she has a high level of testosterone, she has an unfair advantage on the track. According to ESPN, “the IAAF argued that athletes who are found to have “differences of sex development” (DSD) — specifically higher levels of naturally occurring testosterone — have a significant advantage over others and therefore need to be regulated to ensure fair competition.”
Interestingly, this ruling does not apply to the sprints, just the longer distances. ESPN stated, “The regulations do not include sprinting events, like the 100 meters and 200 meters, which is notable because, prior to this latest challenge, Indian sprinter Dutee Chand won her 2015 case against the IAAF after the organization tried to force her to limit her testosterone levels.”
The website continued to say, “The 2015 ruling gave the IAAF two years to provide evidence that testosterone gave women a significant advantage. The IAAF later informed the court it would rescind the regulations challenged by Chand and institute new policies. The new policies are the ones Semenya challenged.”
However, is it really necessary for them to lower their testosterone? Does testosterone give them that big of an advantage?
Dr. Katrina Karkazis, a senior visiting fellow at Yale University and the author of the forthcoming book Testosterone: An Unauthorized Biography, was cited on ESPN as saying, “Everyone’s testosterone is important for their own performance. What you can’t do is say that women with slightly higher levels or women with the highest levels will perform better. There is not a clear and consistent relationship between someone’s testosterone and athletic performance.”
What she is saying makes sense – simply having more testosterone doesn’t mean you’ll be a great athlete. Semenya is a brilliant athlete but she also doesn’t hold the Olympics record, world record or championship record for the 400m, 800m or 1500m. Clearly the testosterone isn’t giving her as great an advantage as people want to believe.
My thoughts are this: Let Caster Semenya compete in her middle-distance races. We may look at the situation with nonchalance because she is not Jamaican but what if she was our beloved middle-distance runner? Maybe then it would be easier to see it from her side. Sure, she may have more testosterone, but athletes have various advantages. Should they ban very tall basketballers because it’s unfair to the shorter ones? No, because everyone knows being tall doesn’t automatically mean you will do well at basketball.
While the comparisons may not be exact, surely testosterone couldn’t be the only reason she’s a brilliant runner. I also find it interesting how this wasn’t implemented in the sprints. Where is the scientific evidence that testosterone only helps women in middle-distance races?
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