Sports court set to deliver Semenya judgment

On Wednesday, the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) is set to deliver its verdict on Caster Semenya’s appeal against new testerone regulations brought about by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF). It is impossible to overstate how much this means to the sport, let alone the athlete in question.

South Africa’s star, double Olympic gold-winning runner approached CAS after the federation introduced new middle-distance regulations in April last year. The “eligibility regulations for female classification” restricted the levels of testerone allowed in women intending to run the 400m, hurdles, 800m, 1 500m and combined events.

Under such rules, athletes who have a “difference of sexual development” (DSD) would be rigorously monitored and forced to lower, and then maintain for six months, their testosterone levels to five nanomoles a litre (nmol/l).

What’s next?This will be Semenya’s life should CAS not rule in her favour. Ironically the treatment to lower “unnatural” testosterone is anything but natural. Drugs and/or hormone therapy await any athlete that is affected by the regulations.

In Semenya’s case, it is uncertain whether we would see her run the specified distances at IAAF-sanctioned events again. While she has previously been on hormone medication in the past, the long-term health ramifications and performance harming factors are unclear.

She won gold in 5 000m at the South African Athletics Championships on Friday — leading to speculation that she is preparing to conquer distances outside the new rule’s jurisdiction.

Given the IAAF’s history with gender restrictions, however, it’s hard to believe they will stop here. Indian sprinter Dutee Chand, for instance, won her appeal against hyperandrogenism restrictions in 2015 but CAS did see merits in the IAAF’s case and told it to come back with more evidence. A win might just embolden the federation to continue on such past quests.

On the same token a loss for the IAAF might trigger them into throwing all their toys out the cot. Some international outlets have reported that it would re-classify the way genders are split entirely.

Often this reporting has smacked of fear-mongering, misogynoir and transphobia masquerading as genuine concern; designed to frighten society into outlawing Semenya and people like her.

Take the United Kingdom’s Daily Mail.

“One senior athletics insider suggested the sport may have to contemplate replacing male and female categories with ‘A and B’ classifications that take into account transgender athletes as well as people with differences of sexual development (DSD) such as Semenya,” it wrote.

“Victory for the IAAF would render such a revolutionary, and for many unpalatable, change unnecessary.”

IAAF births a legend

In many ways, Semenya has already resoundingly beating the IAAF. By standing up to a world body, she has endeared herself to countless followers around the globe.

After the sports ministry slammed the IAAF for what it believes is a racist and sexist approach, an endless stream of support has poured in for the Olympian. Almost every major political party and governmental organisation has gotten behind her. In these days of election and disagreement, Semenya is the one person a whole nation is happy to get behind.

From inspiring a new Nike “Just Do It Campaign” to garnering support from megastars like LeBron James, the global backing she has garnered is unparalleled. This itself has set a precedent.

“States [must] ensure that sporting association and bodies implement policies and practices in accordance with international human rights, norms and standards, and to refrain from developing and enforcing policies and practices that force, coerce or otherwise pressure women and girl athletes into undergoing unnecessary, humiliating and harmful medical procedures in order to participate in women’s events in competitive sports,” reads a United Nation Human Rights Council resolution.

Semenya has left an indelible mark on the sport and even society at large. There is no verdict today that can erase that. Still, it could stand as a major turning point for how we view, and athletes, participate in athletics. All eyes on CAS.

Luke Feltham
Luke Feltham

Luke Feltham runs the Mail & Guardian's sports desk. He was previously the online day editor.

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