Why the Caster Semenya ruling is flawed

By now, I’m sure everyone is aware of the ruling against Caster Semenya made by the Court of Arbitration of Sport (CAS) in her fight against the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF).

For those who that aren’t, here’s the quick version: The Court of Arbitration of Sport (Cas) has ruled that Semenya and all other women with elevated testosterone have to take medication to artificially lower their testosterone levels if they wish to continue competing.

This ruling comes on the back of the IAAF’s nearly ten-year-long struggle against Semenaya, which started when she first began dominating the international stage at just 18 years of age.

There are many reasons why the court CAS ruling is not just flawed but ultimately harmful, so let’s examine some of them.

1. The ruling goes against all the available science

The most glaring error with the CAS decision is how it completely flies in the face of all the research that is out there.

Caster Semenya at the Potchefstroom High Performance Centre
Picture: KEVIN SUTHERLAND

The IAAF’s position is so blatantly false that it forced Prof Steve Cornelius – who would go on to defend Semenya during her trial – to resign his position on the body’s disciplinary tribunal.

In his scathing resignation letter, Cornelius said he was stepping down “on deep moral grounds” and called the organisation’s position “fundamentally flawed” and “unethical”.

If you want a more expert opinion, consider an article titled The Harrison Bergeron Olympics, written for the American Journal of Bioethics by Katrina Karkazis, of Stanford University, and Rebecca Jordan-Young, of Barnard College, published all the way back in 2013.

In the article, Karkazis et al criticise the belief that heightened testosterone constitutes an unfair advantage for athletes.

They make several great arguments but in short, they found that: “You can’t use testosterone to predict who is going to do better on any physical feat. You also can’t infer that people who do better have more testosterone.”

This has been echoed by many other other experts.

In other words: Semenya has science on her side, the IAAF does not.

2. The ruling unfairly targets only female athletes. while ignoring male athletes.

In a great piece for the Washington Post, Monica Hessa discusses a common comparison that is often brought up when discussing Semenya: why is her naturally higher testosterone considered “cheating” but the many biological advantages of US swimmer Michael Phelps are not?

As Hessa points out, Phelps has a disproportionately wide wingspan that increases the power of his strokes, double-jointed ankles providing extra range in his kicks, and he produces half the lactic acid of a typical athlete, which means he suffers less from fatigue.

Unlike Semenya, “Michael Phelps was treated like a marvel and Caster Semenya is treated like a mutant”.

This goes beyond Phelps and Semenya, however.

Venus and Serena Williams have also faced criticism for being too “rough” and not appearing feminine enough. Meanwhile, you’d be hard- pressed to find any male athlete who has faced similar criticism.

At no point has the IAAF said that male athletes need to regulate their natural testosterone even though the exact same arguments used against Semenya would apply.

3. The proposed testosterone limit is arbitrary

In that same article, Hessa notes that the testosterone limit imposed by the court CAS makes little sense.
According to the ruling, female athletes must maintain a level of five nanomoles of testosterone per litre in order to compete.

This makes little sense because, as Hessa points out, all it takes is for an athlete to have a level of 5.01nmole/l to suddenly be declared not a woman.

“So if you were forced to submit to a testosterone test … would you bet your livelihood and your identity on the hopes that your measurements would turn up on the correct side of the line?

“If they didn’t, would you alter your identity based on this new data – or might you argue that your personhood was more than a number?” she says.

This brings us to our next and final point.

4: The ruling enforces harmful gender stereotypes

The entire premise of the ruling hinges on the harmful notion that gender can be measured on some sort of objective scale and thus neatly categorised into individual boxes.
This is incredibly wrong and erases the many individuals like Semenya who don’t fit neatly into such a binary.

Such thinking doesn’t just harm athletes, it harms all women by dictating what is and is not acceptable and punishes anyone who diverges.

It’s an attitude that has pushed back against every single step of the Women’s Rights Movement and it continues to prop up gender discrimination in a myriad of ways.

Here’s hoping Semenya is able to eventually able to successfully appeal and win back her right to do what she was born to do.

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