South African Professor Steve Cornelius is a big fan of track and field, that amalgam of Olympic events like short and long distance running, pole vaulting, and shot put. So when he was appointed to the Disciplinary Tribunal of the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), the sport’s governing body, he was extremely honored.
Unfortunately, his time with the organization was short-lived. This week, in the aftermath of the IAAF’s announcement of its new “Eligibility Guidelines for Female Classification,” Cornelius sent a scathing letter to IAAF President Sebastian Coe announcing his resignation, effective immediately.
The updated guidelines cuts the permissible levels of naturally-occurring testosterone in female athletes in half, but only for athletes who compete in international track events from 400m to one mile.
“I could not reconcile with being on a tribunal where I might be called on to enforce these regulations. I believe there’s fundamental flaws in it. And in so many parts of the world, what they are doing this just unlawful. That’s why I decided to resign,” Cornelius told ThinkProgress in a phone interview on Monday evening.
As ThinkProgress previously reported, the new regulations are based on faulty conclusions drawn from questionable studies financed by the IAAF, and will disproportionately impact women with intersex traits from the global south. Moreover, they seem specifically targeted to undermine the greatness of South African Olympic champion runner Caster Semenya, who just happens to compete in the 800m and 1500m.
As an academic and expert on sports law, Cornelius says just couldn’t live with himself were he to sit idly by while the IAAF implemented these discriminatory guidelines.
“I grew up in a part of South Africa … I grew up and saw how often grave injustices could be committed if people keep quiet.”
He said that South Africans tend to rally together in support when one of their own is attacked, and noted that his fellow citizens are outraged over these regulations. However, he insists that his resignation isn’t just out of concern for one athlete.
“For me it’s a much bigger issue,” he said. “It’s not only about Caster Semenya, it’s about all females participating in these events.”
Cornelius pulled no punches in his open letter, which called the IAAF out on its hypocrisy, racism, and sexism.
“Sadly, I cannot in good conscience continue to associate myself with an organization which insists on ostracizing certain individuals, all of them female, for no reason other than being what they were born to be,” Corneluis wrote. “The adoption of the new eligibility regulations for female classification is based on the same kind of ideology that has led to some of the worst injustices and atrocities in the history of our planet.”
“I am confident that history will judge you harshly”. – Prof Steve Cornelius on the conduct of IAAF forcing female athletes to artificially decrease their testosterone levels.#CasterSemenya #IAAF pic.twitter.com/eNOK1q5Wdc
— Pauli Van Wyk (@PaulivW) April 30, 2018
This is, Cornelius believes, yet another sign that the IAAF is not at all committed to the kinds of reforms the organization promised after it was found to be at the center of a large-scale doping, bribery, and corruption scandal that began to unfurl in 2015.
“How the IAAF Council can, in the 21st Century, when we are meant to be more tolerant and aware of fundamental human rights, even contemplate these kinds of objectionable regulations, is a sad reflection of the fact that the antiquated views of the ‘old’ scandal-hit IAAF, still prevails and that the promises of reform have been empty indeed,” Cornelius wrote.
“I am confident that history will judge you and the members of the IAAF Council harshly for choosing to go down this route.”
Cornelius told ThinkProgress that he believes the only true way forward is for the IAAF to admit that it’s wrong about the regulations, rescind them, and apologize. He knows that’s a long shot, though. It’s likely going to fall on the shoulders of athletes like Semenya to challenge the regulations at the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS), which has overturned similar regulations in the past.
Even that is much easier said than done, though. Being the face of such a case is a huge burden to place on the shoulders of any athlete, particularly an athlete in their prime.
But, no matter what happens next, Cornelius feels positive that Semenya will persevere, just as she always has.
“She’s an incredible woman,” he said. “She’s always kind, gentle, and friendly. And how she has dealt with this as well — even in face of adversity she never gives a rude comment. In the past, she has said, this is a matter that will be sorted out. She’s handles it all with such grace.”