South African athlete Caster Semenya succeeded in her lawsuit at the European Court of Human Rights against the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS). Her personal story led to a controversy about whether the hormone rules in sport are for fairness or a discrimination over hyperandrogenic athletes.
The CAS, headquartered in Switzerland, mandated that female athletes maintain a lower hormone level. The ruling required medical intervention to be taken by athletes like Caster Semenya.
Semenya is a two-time Olympics champion, born in a village near Polokwane, South Africa. She is assigned as a woman at birth and has always identified as a woman. She has hyperandrogenism, which means that she has an excessive amount of androgens in her body to alter the status of her bones and muscles.
Semenya has been questioned about her medical history ever since she launched her career in sport. Her competitor, Italian olympics athlete Elisa Cusma defied Semenya’s eligibility to compete, “For me, she is not a woman. She is a man.”
An activist from Intersex Justice Project reacted to the scrutiny over Semenya, “What I think this comes down to is, Caster’s faster than white girls and she made them cry.”
In 2019, Semenya filed a claim with the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) to ask for an overturn of the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) regulations pertaining to women athletes of higher androgens level.
“I know that the IAAF’s regulations have always targeted me specifically. For a decade the IAAF has tried to slow me down, but this has actually made me stronger.” Semenya wrote in a statement released to the media.
The IAAF defended, “that if the purpose of the female category is to prevent athletes who lack that testosterone-derived advantage from having to compete against athletes who possess that testosterone-derived advantage, then it is necessarily ‘category defeating’ to permit any individuals who possess that testosterone-derived advantage to compete in that category.”
The explanation was generally accepted by arbitrators of the CAS. Semenya lost it at the Swiss Supreme Court, preventing her from attending the Olympics unless she goes through the medical process.
“The decision of the CAS will not hold me back. I will once again rise above and continue to inspire young women and athletes in South Africa and around the world.” said Semenya.
As the European Court of Human Rights declared its ruling on July 11, 2023, the justice was finally given back to Semenya. Her lawyer addressed her case as a fight for the “dignity, equality, and the human rights of women in sport”.
Social scientists believe that gender is a highly socially constructed concept. The same as color, sexuality is assigned to one at birth, then misinterpreted by the society with stereotypical expectations. For Semenya, she has been targeted for being a Black athlete who is faster than her White competitors, and for being a Black woman who failed to conform with their expectation of womanhood.
Meanwhile, at the current stage, women and men are still separately evaluated in athletic competitions and testosterone is still conservatively considered to be an advantage granted to men instead of a neutral genetic gift. Will Caster Semenya’s professional achievements enhance the patriarchal belief in “men are genetically stronger”? The inclusivity of women with high testosterone levels is a difficult mission, as long as patriarchy goes on.
The ultimate fairness is the equal recognition of everyone despite their background, race, sexuality, and gender identity. As the sport industry struggles to reach a consensus, gender and racial equity still has a long way to go.
Written by Tina Zhang