Caster Semenya, a middle-distance runner from South Africa, is at the top of her game. Her most recent victory was the 800m race in Doha on May 3, 2019. But while she won the race, she lost a battle when the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) rejected her appeal of a new rule by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) that restricts testosterone levels in female runners. The Court stated that their decision was “necessary, reasonable and proportionate to make sure competition was fair for females.”
What’s the issue? Caster is a female athlete who naturally has a higher level of testosterone in her body than most women. Testosterone is a hormone that helps our bodies develop and is usually found at higher levels in men than in women. Caster’s elevated testosterone levels are not because she has taken steroids or other performance-boosting drugs, but are a natural occurrence. When this fact was revealed after a test, other athletes protested saying that this gave her an unfair advantage in any race. Caster feels treated unfairly too, saying “I just want to run naturally, the way I was born.”
What does the new rule mean? The new rule means that she will now have to take medication to lower the testosterone levels in her body if she wants to compete. Though they ruled against her, the Court of Arbitration for Sport did say that there were problems of putting the new rule into practice and also warned of the harmful side effects that hormone treatment could cause in those who were forced to take it to compete.
Is the new rule fair? The ruling has caused anger and has brought up many issues. First, the scientific one. Yale University researcher Katrina Karkazis has said that there is no confirmed link between high testosterone levels and better performance of the track. Hormone levels in the body are continually changing and may be different at different times in the same person – a fact that can’t be monitored without frequent, invasive testing.
It is also a gender question. Several female athletes, who may be bigger built than others, were made to test to ‘prove’ that they were women. Many activists have said that it is against human rights and the universal ‘sex test’ was abolished. However, there are still people who take up this cause, which has led to this controversial ruling.
Some countries are refusing to implement the new rules. The Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sports, the Canadian Association for the Advancement of Women and Sports and AthletesCAN, have said that they do not support the decision. Athletics Canada has said it won’t implement the policy in Canada.
Semenya is determined to continue to run, and she has said that she will keep fighting against what she considers to be biased.
Let’s discuss this: The ruling actually brings up more questions than it answers. Human bodies are all different. If there is a way to even things out like the medication to lower testosterone, should it be used in the name of fairness? What happens if a basketball player is naturally tall? Should you, or can you, penalise him/her for that? What about the very real advantages in terms of coaching, training, diet etc. that athletes from more developed countries have over those from less developed ones? What if a person does not want to take medication for personal and health reasons but would now have to?
We would love to hear your opinions so write in to us at firstname.lastname@example.org and tell us what you feel about this debate. It is one that is far from over.
Written by: Pereena Lamba. Pereena is a freelance writer, editor and creative consultant. She is also co-author of Totally Mumbai.