Right now, a battle for the future of women’s sports is raging in a courtroom in Switzerland. Will women’s sports be an inclusive endeavor, where women and gender nonconforming athletes from across the physical and socioeconomic spectrum can compete on elite levels using the bodies they were born with? Or will it be a place that discriminates, that arbitrates from a place of fear, that protects a western ideal of femininity and conformity above all else?
Caster Semenya, one of the best female athletes in the world, has been at the center of this fight since she burst onto the scene at the 2009 World Championships. Now, the South African middle distance runner is fighting back.
Last month, the 27-year-old Olympic champion legally challenged the new “Eligibility Regulations for Female Classifications” introduced this April by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), the international governing body of track and field. These regulations 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.
Semenya contends that the regulations are “discriminatory, irrational, unjustifiable,” and she’s challenging them in order to “ensure, safeguard and protect the rights of all women.”
For the past nine years, Semenya has mostly stayed silent while the media, track officials, and her opponents speculated wildly about her gender, testosterone levels, intersex traits, and the “fairness” of her mere existence. When her medical records were leaked to the press after her breakthrough at the 2009 World Championships in Berlin; when the IAAF imposed new testosterone regulations for female athletes in 2011; when Indian sprinter Dutee Chand challenged those regulations in 2012 and got them suspended; when the IAAF kept commissioning study after study filled with faulty science in a desperate attempt to prove that testosterone levels are the be-all, end-all, of athletic performances; Semenya stayed focus on running, on fighting to be the best athlete she can be, on maximizing the gifts she was given.
But when the IAAF came out with new regulations in April — regulations which were clearly designed to target Semenya and the events she competes in, despite the fact that the IAAF’s own study says that women with higher testosterone levels do not have a significant advantage in middle-distance races — she finally had to take action. Not just for herself, but for all of the women and gender nonconforming people who will come after her.
“I am very upset that I have been pushed into the public spotlight again. I don’t like talking about this new rule,” Semenya said in a statement. “I just want to run naturally, the way I was born. It is not fair that I am told I must change. It is not fair that people question who I am. I am Mokgadi Caster Semenya. I am a woman and I am fast.”
The man who is heading up the fight against Semenya is Sebastian Coe, the president of the IAAF. He and his supporters are trying to market these rules as a way to protect female athletes and preserve the sanctity of female athletic competition. The argument is that Semenya, who was born with intersex traits, is not a “real” woman, but an intruder that women need to be protected from.
Coe and his fellow fearmongers entirely dismiss the notion that Semenya is a woman at all. Sure, her body composition might give her a slight advantage that she has maximized with her hard work, but how is that different from any other athlete? Should basketball players have a height limit? Maybe Michael Phelps should be forced to cut off some of his hands so that they don’t give him such an advantage in the pool? And, I mean, Katie Ledecky’s dominance in the pool can’t be fair for the rest of the women competing against her, right? Shouldn’t she be forced to undergo arbitrary, invasive tests so that we can figure out where her natural advantage lies and make rules that will even the playing field?
Those suggestions are ridiculous of course, but so to is what the IAAF is trying to do to Semenya. Once again, the IAAF’s own scientific studies say that higher levels of testosterone in women does not give them an athletic advantage anywhere close to the athletic advantage that top male athletes have over top female athletes. If they’re not overturned, Semenya and other women — primarily women of color in the global south — will be forced to take medication or undergo operations in order to suppress their natural body chemistry.
South African Professor Steve Cornelius resigned from the IAAF’s Disciplinary Tribunal when these new regulations were announced in April, because he recognized them for what they are: Racist.
“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.
“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.”
Men using junk science to control women’s bodies and squelch their potential are the real enemy of women’s sports, and they always have been. They’re the ones who wouldn’t let women ski jump because it might cause their uteruses to fall out; who said that women couldn’t run a marathon because it would too much of a “shock” to a woman’s delicate system. That’s why nobody should be okay with this latest effort. Not fans, not the media, not scientists, and not even Semenya’s fellow competitors.
The advancement of women’s sports has been a huge boost for women’s rights throughout the world. It’s a way for women to claim health, independence, and power. It’s imperative that we keep pushing to make women’s sports an inclusive space, so that such benefits are available to all.
“Ms. Semenya is equally concerned by the way in which the Regulations continue the offensive practice of intrusive surveillance and judging of women’s bodies which has historically haunted women’s sports,” Semenya’s lawyers said in a press release announcing her legal challenge. “The Regulations stigmatize and cause harm to women, and legitimize discrimination against women in sport who are perceived as not adhering to normative ideas about femininity.”
This is why Semenya is fighting. And this is why everyone who cares about women’s sports should be fighting right alongside her.