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Explained: Will ruling against Caster Semenya see intersex athletes switching events?

The rules, called Eligibility Regulations for Female Classification (Athletes with Differences in Sex Development) have seen several athletes switching to other events where there is no testosterone restriction.

Written by Nihal Koshie , Edited by Explained Desk | New Delhi |
Updated: September 13, 2020 11:21:35 am
FILE - In this Sunday, June 30, 2019 file photo, South Africa's Caster Semenya competes in the women's 800-meter race during the Prefontaine Classic, an IAAF Diamond League athletics meeting, in Stanford, Calif. USA(AP Photo/Jeff Chiu, file)

South African middle-distance runner Caster Semenya has lost her appeal against World Athletics guidelines that restrict testosterone levels in female athletes. The Federal Supreme Court of Switzerland upheld the Court of Arbitration for Sport’s (CAS) May, 2019 order that had endorsed the international governing body’s regulation that made it mandatory for athletes to lower their testosterone levels for competing in events between 400m and a mile.

The rules, called Eligibility Regulations for Female Classification (Athletes with Differences in Sex Development) have seen several athletes switching to other events where there is no testosterone restriction.

Meanwhile, sticking to her stand against medication or hormonal therapy, Semenya expressed her dismay at the order which ended her dream of winning a third straight Olympic medal. “I am very disappointed by this ruling, but refuse to let World Athletics drug me or stop me from being who I am. Excluding female athletes or endangering our health solely because of our natural abilities puts World Athletics on the wrong side of history,” she said in a statement.

What is the World Athletics ruling that Semenya was opposing?

In April 2018, World Athletics, called the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) back then, introduced new eligibility regulations which said that women athletes should have less than 5 nanomoles per litre of testosterone. This guideline was only for runners participating in races between 400 metres and a mile, events that combine speed and endurance. The IAAF said the rule was put in place to ensure a ‘level playing field for women athletes’ since high levels of testosterone gives an athlete an unfair advantage. The new guideline didn’t go down well with female athletes with DSD since they were born with high levels of testosterone. Semenya became the leading voice of athletes who believed that the new guidelines were discriminatory.

How did the international body come up with these guidelines?

The IAAF, based on data including performances at world championships reviewed by experts, concluded that female athletes with testosterone of 7.3 nmol/L (male range starts from 7.7 nmol/L) have a 4.4 per cent advantage in muscle mass and a 12 per cent to 26 per cent increase in muscle strength. Most women, including elite female athletes, the IAAF said, have testosterone levels only between 0.12 to 1.79 nmol/L. It also said that female athletes with levels of testosterone of 5nmol/L or above are either intersex/DSD, doped athletes or athletes with adrenal or ovarian tumours.

South Africa’s Caster Semenya wins the women’s 800m. (Reuters Photo: Ibraheem Al Omari)

How can a DSD athlete with a naturally high testosterone level compete in international competitions?

An athlete affected by the DSD regulations has to show that her testosterone levels are below the upper limit for a period of six months before returning to international competition.

The world body has said that an athlete does not have to undergo any kind of surgery. DSD athletes can compete in sprint events or events longer than a mile.

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Will this rule see DSD athletes switching events?

Likely. Dr Payoshni Mitra, who was an expert on the panel for defending Semenya when she challenged the rules, told The Indian Express that athletes wary of reducing their natural testosterone level will switch events.

“All athletes impacted by these regulations whom I know are switching events because they are aware of the harmful effects of hormone therapy or surgery. Athletes must know that the United Nations condemned these regulations. No one should be forced to take medical steps in order to compete in sports. One can switch events or take legal action,” Mitra said.

Semenya has announced that she will target the 200 metres at the Tokyo Olympics but that won’t be easy because just to qualify, she will have to improve her personal best by over a second and a half. In February this year, she ran her first competitive event in eight months, the 300 metres at the University of Johannesburg. She broke the national record in the not- often-competed distance, that is not part of the Olympics or World Championships. In June last year, she ran the 3,000 metres in Paris and won with a timing of 5 minutes and 38.19 seconds.

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Will it be a level-playing field in sprints or events longer than a mile?

World Athletics says that based on the evidence experts reviewed, it appears that ‘restricted events’ are the ones where performance gets boosted because of higher levels of testosterone.

Sprinter Dutee Chand had successfully challenged the previous ‘hyperandrogenism regulations’ of the IAAF, that were used to ban her in 2014.

Are any Indian athletes affected by the ruling?

Currently, there are no known cases of an Indian athlete being affected or admitting to switching events because of the restrictions on testosterone levels. Sprinter Dutee Chand had successfully challenged the previous ‘hyperandrogenism regulations’ of the IAAF, that were used to ban her in 2014. Those rules required women to have testosterone of less than 10 nanomoles per litre. However, the IAAF excluded certain distances, including the 100 metres and 200 metres, when they came out with the new event-specific DSD regulations.

Dutee has since won multiple medals, including two silver medals (100 metres and 200 metres) at the 2018 Asian Games.

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