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9 reasons the Caster Semenya ruling is complete nonsense

The ruling against Caster Semenya was discriminatory and arbitrary, and revealed how backwards sports’ governing bodies can be.

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Athletics - Commonwealth Games Day 6 Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images

On Wednesday, the Court of Arbitration for Sport denied Caster Semenya’s appeal against an International Association of Athletics Federations rule that would prevent her from competing at the highest level of track.

The rule limits the testosterone levels of competitors in women’s track events, and will require Semenya to take medically unnecessary drugs in order to compete. If you need it, here’s an explainer on Semenya’s medical designation, the IAAF rule, and the CAS decision.

It’s a completely nonsense ruling, and the culmination of a 10-year witch hunt against Semenya that was started solely because of her appearance. Let us count the ways that this absolutely sucks.

1. CAS admitted its ruling was discriminatory

Powerful people and organizations often get away with discrimination because people are unable to comprehend the discriminatory nature of their actions. But bizarrely, in this case, there’s no question about whether Semenya is being discriminated against. CAS found that she has been, but that IAAF is justified in doing so.

“The Panel found that the DSD Regulations are discriminatory but the majority of the Panel found that, on the basis of the evidence submitted by the parties, such discrimination is a necessary, reasonable and proportionate means of achieving the IAAF’s aim of preserving the integrity of female athletics in the Restricted Events.”

An established precedent of “reasonable” and “necessary” discrimination is terrifying. The majority of the CAS panel either failed to consider the potential ramifications of this precedent, or didn’t deem it to be a problem.

2. Caster Semenya sure does get discriminated against a lot

In 2009, Semenya was subjected to a gender test by IAAF to prove she was eligible to compete in female athletics. When that failed to disqualify her from competing as a woman, the organization came up with a new policy that put a testosterone ceiling on female competitors. Semenya was still able to compete under that policy, so IAAF got to work on justifying stricter rules based on bad data.

IAAF’s repeated attempts to end Semenya’s career are entirely based on people being put off by her appearance, and it’s pretty obviously racist. Bruce Kidd, a former Olympian and Kinesiology professor at the University of Toronto, pointed out to the CBC that the IAAF’s new rules only include events that black athletes have historically dominated.

“They have identified seven events where they think there is a correlation [between testosterone levels and performance]. Two of them are the pole vault and hammer throw and they have not made them part of this new rule, and those are events that are dominated by white women. They have targeted the mile, an event that is currently dominated by black women. And the mile isn’t even part of their study. It’s hard not to draw the conclusion this is a racist, targeted test.”

3. Everything about IAAF’s rule is arbitrary

In the IAAF’s argument, they state that the normal range of testosterone in cisgender women is 0.06 to 1.68 nmol/L, while the normal range in cisgender men is 7.7 to 29.4 nmol/L. How they used this information to argue for a limit of 5 nmol/L in female competitors is difficult to understand.

If high testosterone levels in women are performance enhancing to the point of being unfair to a majority of cis female competitors, and their conclusions about how much Semenya’s performance is affected by testosterone are based on sound science, why would they set the limit at three times the normal range ceiling? The limit of 5 nmol/L seems like a made-up number that targets specific people IAAF wants to ban, rather than one that ensures a fair competition.

The distance restrictions also don’t make sense. This rule only applies to runners who compete in distances between 400 meters and one mile. IAAF has not publicly made an argument for why high testosterone levels in female competitors do not constitute an unfair advantage in sprints and long-distance events, and the CAS did not include any information about those arguments in its summary. Again, this seems like a rule specifically and narrowly targeted at one person.

4. It’s not like Semenya is obliterating records

Semenya’s performances have been great, and she’s the best runner in the world at her distance, but her times have also been pretty normal. She’s not doing Usain Bolt or Katie Ledecky-type stuff. She has the fourth-fastest time in the history of the women’s 800 meters, and her personal best is a full second slower than the world record. Nothing about her performance raises any red flags.

5. Wait, please define the word “talent” for me

The IAAF justifies this rule by saying it wants to create “a level playing field and ensure that success is determined by talent, dedication, hard work, and the other values and characteristics that the sport embodies and celebrates.”

What is and isn’t talent? The natural physical gifts that Caster Semenya has don’t constitute talent? I’m confused.

6. What is and isn’t an unfair physical advantage?

Michael Phelps obliterated records in every event he swam in. Besides his perfect-for-swimming body type, Phelps also has double-jointed ankles and produces considerably less lactic acid than his competitors. Why is having a body that produces more testosterone than 99 percent of the population an unfair advantage, but having a body that produces less lactic acid than 99 percent of the population fair? Which naturally occurring body processes and chemical compounds are OK, and which ones aren’t? Do we really want to open up this can of worms?

7. Telling athletes they need to medically alter their bodies to compete is pretty messed up

Semenya can still compete in the 800 meters if she takes anti-androgen medication to reduce her testosterone levels. Mandating that anyone take medication that their doctor does not deem medically necessary so that they can compete under your rules is an incredibly bad idea. It’s wild that a sports organization would actively de-prioritize the health of its athletes.

The CAS panel actually recognized this problem.

“The side effects of hormonal treatment, experienced by individual athletes could, with further evidence, demonstrate the practical impossibility of compliance which could, in turn, lead to a different conclusion as to the proportionality of the DSD Regulations.”

But, incredibly, it decided to rule in IAAF’s favor anyway.

8. IAAF and the CAS have really shitty and outdated views of gender

Here’s a really good piece from Madeleine Pope, a runner who lost to Semenya in 2009 and felt salty about it, then realized she was wrong while doing her PhD research. The whole thing is recommended reading, but here’s the most important part:

I encountered the vast literature written by advocates of women’s sport who oppose the exclusion of women athletes with naturally high testosterone for both scientific and ethical reasons: scientifically, because biological sex and athletic ability are both far too complex for scientists to reduce to measures of testosterone, and ethically, because these regulatory efforts have always been characterised by considerable harm to the women athletes singled out for testing.

Describing testosterone as the “male sex hormone” is inaccurate, and recent research suggests that a lot more goes into athletic success than testosterone levels. Reducing athletic ability to testosterone and equating testosterone levels to maleness are caveman beliefs.

9. Caster Semenya does compete on a level playing field

Here’s how CAS summed up its difficulty in handing down its decision. Emphasis is mine.

“It is not possible to give effect to one set of rights without restricting the other set of rights. Put simply, on one hand is the right of every athlete to compete in sport, to have their legal sex and gender identity respected, and to be free from any form of discrimination. On the other hand, is the right of female athletes, who are relevantly biologically disadvantaged visà-vis male athletes, to be able to compete against other female athletes and to achieve the benefits of athletic success.”

Caster Semenya is a female athlete. She has never not lived as a woman. She was subjected to invasive gender testing, went through it, and was determined to be a woman. Allowing her to compete unrestricted against women does not infringe on the rights of women, because she is a woman.

But don’t take my word for it. Here is a list of world champion cis women athletes who agree. The likes of Billie Jean King, Megan Rapinoe, Meghan Duggan, and Jessica Mendoza have stated that they would have no problem competing against Semenya, and that they see the IAAF’s regulations as “invasive surveillance and judgment of women’s bodies that have long tainted women’s sport.” I value their input much more than that of IAAF’s overwhelmingly male council.