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Top women sports stars voice support for Caster Semenya

"No woman should be required to change her body to compete in women’s sport."

South African athlete Caster Semenya (L) competes in the women's 1500 metres during the Diamond League athletics competition at the Suhaim bin Hamad Stadium in Doha, on May 4, 2018. (Photo by KARIM JAAFAR / AFP)        (Photo credit should read KARIM JAAFAR/AFP/Getty Images)
South African athlete Caster Semenya (L) competes in the women's 1500 metres during the Diamond League athletics competition at the Suhaim bin Hamad Stadium in Doha, on May 4, 2018. (Photo by KARIM JAAFAR / AFP) (Photo credit should read KARIM JAAFAR/AFP/Getty Images)

The International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) is hell-bent on forcing South African Olympic champion Caster Semenya and other women with high levels of naturally-occurring testosterone to undergo invasive procedures and/or take unnecessary medication in order to compete in international track events.

But tennis legend Billie Jean King, U.S. women’s national team soccer stars Megan Rapinoe and Abby Wambach, WNBA All-Star Layshia Clarendon, aren’t having it.

They have joined more than 60 elite athletes from across the women’s sporting world in signing an open letter demanding that the governing body of track and field rescind its “Eligibility Regulations for Female Classifications,” which were implemented in April.

“These regulations continue the invasive surveillance and judgment of women’s bodies that have long tainted women’s sport,” the letter reads.

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“They intensify the unfair scrutiny that female athletes already experience and exacerbate discrimination against women in sport who are perceived as not prescribing to normative ideas about femininity, which can include their appearance, their gender expression, and their sexuality.”

This is a significant show of solidarity in support of Semenya, the South African middle-distance runner who has been targeted by the IAAF since she first burst onto the scene at the 2009 world championships, when she was only 18 years old.

Last month, Semenya filed a lawsuit against the federation challenging the new regulations, which explicitly target female athletes with naturally-occurring levels of testosterone higher than 5 nanomoles per liter (nmol/L) who happen to compete in international track events from 400m to one mile — a very limited selection of events that curiously includes the races Semenya competes in.

The open letter was organized by the Women’s Sports Foundation and Athlete Ally, a nonprofit that aims to end LGBTQ discrimination in sports. While Semenya is not mentioned by name in the letter, many of the athletes who signed it offered their explicit support for the two-time Olympic champion in accompanying statements.

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“Caster has dedicated her life to her sport — through perseverance and grit she has risen to the top,” Clarendon said in a statement. “All dominant athletes have some kind of physical advantage, and no woman should ever have to undergo medically unnecessary intervention in order to compete. The IAAF should be celebrating Caster and her accomplishments instead of putting forth regulations that directly target her.”

The IAAF has tried to defend these regulations by painting Semenya — and other women with naturally occurring occurring higher-than-average testosterone levels — as a threat to women’s sports, and by exploiting the general public’s ignorance of intersex traits.

That’s why this letter — which was also signed by Dutee Chand, the Indian sprinter who successfully challenged the IAAF’s previous testosterone regulations in 2012 — is noteworthy. By speaking up, athlete activists in the LGBTQIA and feminist sports communities are showing the IAAF that Semenya isn’t in this fight alone.

“As sports fans, we celebrate exceptional athleticism due to any number of physical characteristics. We celebrate Michael Phelps and Yao Ming,” Megan Rapinoe said.

“Caster is no different. She is a talented athlete who should not be forced to alter her body when there is no significant scientific evidence that she has any kind of unfair competitive advantage. This is just another way in which sport governing bodies police dominant female athletes — but never our male counterparts.”