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Caster Semenya deserves better.
She deserves better than to be targeted by her own sport and ridiculed by the women she routinely runs faster than.
The 29-year-old South African is a three-time World Champion and two-time Olympic gold medalist in the 800 meters, one of the most grueling events in athletics. Participants must have the strength of longer distance runners but also the speed of a short sprinter — how else could one cover a half-mile in well under two minutes?
But Semenya is tall, Black, openly gay, not conventionally feminine-looking and she’s damn good, which has put her at the mercy of the ruling body of her sport.
On Tuesday, the Federal Supreme Court of Switzerland ruled against Semenya, refusing to set aside a 2019 ruling by the Court of Arbitration that allowed female eligibility rules for the events that Semenya runs and were imposed by governing body World Athletics.
Which means as of right now the reigning gold medalist won’t be able to defend her title in Tokyo next year — unless she undergoes surgery or begins taking medication.
Let’s back up for a moment: Semenya was born intersex, which is a wide-ranging term covering over 40 variations of traits that don’t fit the typical definitions of female or male. In Semenya’s case, her body naturally produces a higher-than-usual amount of testosterone relative to most women. She has never been found to have taken performance-enhancing drugs or otherwise tried to cheat.
Yet World Athletics, formerly known as the International Amateur Athletic Federation, has long been hell-bent on humiliating and invalidating Semenya’s success. For over a decade, from the time she won gold in the 800 at the 2009 African Junior Championships as an 18-year-old and then went on to win her first world title, the federation has targeted her.
She’s undergone invasive testing to verify that she’s a woman, though the IAAF at one point called her “biologically male,” and heard jeers from those who can’t beat her, including at least one, Russia’s Mariya Savinova, who was found to have doped and stripped of her own medals.
When those didn’t deter Semenya, a couple of years ago World Athletics tried a new tact: it instituted a rule that women who compete in the 400 meter to 1500 meter events — and only those events — must have a testosterone level below a certain threshold or take medication or undergo surgery to suppress their naturally-occurring level.
Last year, the Court of Arbitration for Sport declared that the rule was unfair but upheld it anyway.
Testosterone is relevant. But testosterone levels alone do not determine how fast an athlete will run. If you’re a man reading this, you might well have the exact same amount of testosterone in your body as Usain Bolt. Can you run 100 meters in 9.58 seconds? Nope.
All women have varying levels of testosterone. Semenya’s, through no fault or influence of her own, is a bit higher than the average woman’s and it’s unclear whether she gets any advantage because of it.
World Athletics not only embarrasses itself with this continued shaming of one of the greatest runners of this generation, it demeans the work that Semenya has put in during her career by intimating that everything she’s achieved on the track is simply because of biology and nothing else.
Swimmer Michael Phelps, the greatest individual champion in Olympics history, has been found to produce about half the amount of lactic acid as the average person, which means his body recovered significantly faster than his rivals, which meant he could train harder and more efficiently. He also has other physiological advantages, from double-jointed ankles that help power his dolphin kicks to a massive wingspan that gave him a couple of extra inches to reach the wall in a sport where winning so often comes down to hundredths of a second.
Yet the white American man never faced the scrutiny and criticism that Semenya has. Funny how that works.
The most galling thing about the World Athletics female eligibility rule is how defined it is, including only the races Semenya would be most likely to run. Unless, we suspect, she began dominating at events not within that window, and then the rule would change.
Indeed, in an effort to get back to the Olympics to represent her country that continues to support her, Semenya announced earlier this year that she would switch to the 200 meters. At an event in March of this year she ran 23.49 seconds, the best she’s ever run but outside of the top 50 times in the world this year and well off the Olympic qualifying standard of 22.80 seconds.
Track and field was marred by doping in the mid-to-late 1980s, with Canadian Ben Johnson infamously losing his 100 gold medal and world record from the 1988 Games after he admitted to using steroids, and the sport has worked hard to make sure athletes are clean. Now athletes can face sanctions simply for missing testing appointments.
Yet because they’re so bothered by Semenya, World Athletics would have her take anti-androgen drugs or even undergo surgery to appease them.
One of Semenya’s attorneys suggested on Tuesday that she might move her legal battle to Japan, which is hosting the delayed Summer Games.
In a statement, Semenya pledged to continue fighting.
“I am very disappointed by this ruling‚ but refuse to let World Athletics drug me or stop me from being who I am‚” she said. “Excluding female athletes or endangering our health solely because of our natural abilities puts World Athletics on the wrong side of history.
“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.”
Caster Semenya deserves to be celebrated, not shamed. The shame should be World Athletics’ and World Athletics’ alone.
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