This week, the International Association of Athletics Federations announced new “Eligibility Regulations for Female Classification.”
The updated guidelines target female athletes with naturally-occurring levels of testosterone higher than 5 nanomoles per liter (nmol/L) who compete in international track events from 400m to one mile.
If that selection of factors seems curiously specific to you, your suspicion is justified. Caster Semenya — a South African Olympic champion runner who has been subjected to rigorous sex testing and unfathomable levels of scrutiny about her body during her nine years in the international spotlight — just happens to compete in the 800m and 1500m events.
The IAAF insisted in a tweetstorm on Thursday that this was merely about providing “fair and equal conditions” for its female athletes. But — and this may come as a shock, I know — you can’t believe everything you read on Twitter.
Make no mistake about it: This is a racist, sexist rule implemented by rich, white men solely to control the bodies of women, primarily women of color from the global south with intersex traits. It’s a rule propped up by ersatz science and logic that don’t pass even the most basic of inspections, and while the rule appears custom-made to derail Semenya’s dominance, its existence will damage the bodily autonomy of many others.
Semenya has yet to release a statement about these new regulations, but judging by her Instagram, she’s keeping positive in the face of such scrutiny, just as she always has.
Semenya first burst onto the world stage back in 2009, when she won the won the gold medal in the 800m at the world championships when she was only 18 years old.
Instantly, the 5’10” South African’s sex became a topic of debate, and the IAAF broke its own confidentiality rules when it confirmed it was investigating her gender. In 2011, the IAAF placed a cap on the amount of naturally-occurring testosterone (T) cisgender women were permitted to have — if the woman’s T level was above the threshold, the rules required it to be lowered either by invasive genital surgery or through drug treatment. The International Olympic Committee adopted the same policy in 2012.
However, in 2015, teenage Indian sprinter Dutee Chand challenged the T regulations, and the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) ruled in her favor, saying the IAAF had not scientifically provemthat that female athletes with high T levels have a performance advantage comparable to the one that men have typically have over women. CAS suspended these regulations for two years.
But the IAAF did not give up its fight to invasively sex test female athletes.
In 2017, the IAAF published — and publicized — a study in the British Journal of Sports Medicine concluding that females competing in athletics with higher testosterone levels than their peers had a 1.8 to 4.5 percent performance advantage.
“These are studies being done by IAAF policy makers to support the regulations,” Dr. Katrina Karkazis, a Senior Visiting Fellow at the Global Health Justice Partnership at Yale University, told ThinkProgress.
According to Karkazis, this research study relied on faulty statistical methods — but even if the methods had been pristine, the study still wouldn’t justify these regulations.
The approximate performance advantage that male athletes usually have over female athletes is 10 percent, so 1.8 to 4.5 percent still falls far short of that. Additionally, the 1.8 to 4.5 percent advantage was only applicable to competitors in five events, with the biggest advantages coming in hammer throw and pole vault, and the smallest advantages coming in the 400m, 400m hurdles, and 800m events.
However, competitors in hammer throw and pole vault are not subjected to these new guidelines. And as it happens, hammer throw and pole vault are not events that have historically been dominated by women of color from the global south,
Considering this IAAF’s fight for T regulations began when Semenya burst onto the scene, it’s hard to view it as a coincidence that these very narrow rules apply to her events and few others.
Of course, narrowing the guidelines to apply to 400m to one mile races has another advantage to the IAAF — it excludes Chand as well, who competes in the 100m and 200m.
That’s important because this effectively ends Chand’s case against the IAAF — she won, both in 2015 when CAS suspended the IAAF’s rules so that she could compete, and again this week, when the IAAF drafted new rules that don’t apply to her races.
Now, in order to appeal these new regulations, an athlete who competes in one of the newly-targeted events will have to bring another case against the IAAF. That’s not a simple task; even though she was ultimately victorious, Chand’s case against the IAAF was exhausting and intrusive, and put her talent and her body under the microscope during the prime years of her career.
“One of the things that really worries me, is the burden of challenging this falls on an athlete,” Karkazis said. “The weight and burden of this case on [Chand] was horrible.”
Chand had to go through all of that merely to compete in the body that she was born with. That’s all Semenya — and other women who were born with higher levels of testosterone than their peers — wants to do, too.
Unfortunately, because of Semenya’s athletic dominance, the IAAF seems hell-bent on stopping them.