Semenya’s long run for justice ends

NEWS ANALYSIS

Damnant quod non-intellegunt — they condemn what they do not understand. This proverb has applied throughout time. We’ve locked up those who think differently, ostracised anyone who tried to show us the stars — it’s only in history that they have been redeemed.

For Caster Semenya — now that a Swiss tribunal struck down her attempt to halt restrictive testosterone regulations for women athletes — history is the last court in which she might find justice.

“I am very disappointed by this ruling, but refuse to let World Athletics drug me or stop me from being who I am,” she said after the tribunal’s the announcement. “Excluding female athletes or endangering our health solely because of our natural abilities puts World Athletics on the wrong side of history.”

History will remember World Athletics not for protecting women’s middle-distance running, but for shackling one of its most outstanding performers. 

There is a complicated debate about what — if any — advantages women who produce “above-normal” testosterone levels experience and what regulations should be put in place. The existence of gender categories are discriminatory; it’s argued that in the eyes of the law, they are “fair discrimination”.


World Athletics, in its pursuit of Semenya, has destroyed anything resembling fairness. The waters have been polluted, leaving future generations to wade through a set of rules that make sense to very few people.

World Athletics disregarded how blatant it looked even before Semenya won gold in the 800m at the 2009 World Championships. 

World Athletics, then called the International Association of Athletics Federations, demanded that she undergo a sex verification test to confirm she was a woman. The test results were leaked and the ensuing media storm resulted in a humiliating public process.

With World Athletics’ efforts repelled — and a blue eye inflicted by Indian sprinter Dutee Chand, who successfully appealed hyperandrogenism regulations in 2015 — the athletics body realised it would have to be more strategic in its attack.

And so began a series of cherry-picked studies and research grants to justify World Athletics’ new policy of limiting 400m, 800m and 1 500m athletes to an arbitrary testosterone level. To many in the scientific field, the reasoning seemed so subjective that it was almost a given that the court of arbitration for sport (Cas) would repeal it. 

But it didn’t.

“I’m stunned, actually,” Dr Eric Vilain, a geneticist and one of the international experts called to testify at the Cas said at the time. “The decision goes against the basic principle of actually looking at scientific fact to establish policy.”

Now another judicial body has decided to stand on the “wrong side of history” with their peers. 

Perhaps if Semenya wasn’t so successful, World Athletics could have looked the other way. Maybe then her tall, muscular physique and determined strides could have been ignored. But in her defiance and will to win, she gave them something they did not understand. 

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Luke Feltham

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

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