South African runner Caster Semenya. (Michael Dodge/Getty Images)
Caster Semenya celebrations sweeping South Africa this week have an element of prematurity to them.
Yes, the European court finding is an important victory in the context of her legal battle. Yes, this is judicial validation of her claims that her human rights have been infringed upon. But what the ruling will not do is return her to the track immediately. Nor will it turn the clock back on the past five years of struggle.
In many ways, the forces aimed against her have already won: Semenya has been robbed of the prime years of an athletic career. She will remain a legend of South African sport but her legacy will inevitably be littered with what-ifs. We will never behold the beauty of her completed oeuvre.
The current saga began in April 2018, when the athletics world body — at the time known as IAAF — passed new regulations requiring athletes with disorders of sex development to lower their testosterone. The new rules were limited to eight events across the Olympic gamut, conspicuously encompassing the favoured distances of Semenya, a runner whom they had previously subjected to an embarrassing sex test.
She would appeal to the court of arbitration for sport (CAS) and, failing that, the federal supreme court of Switzerland, which similarly dismissed the case.
Finally, Semenya found sympathy for her cause at the European court of human rights. Yet Tuesday’s ruling specifically targets the Swiss judicial system for failing to protect her rights; it can in no way force World Athletics to reconsider its rules.
What happens next is difficult to know but it will probably be determined by the Olympic gold medallist, her legal team and South Africa’s athletics officials — and probably require further skirmishes at the CAS. None of the above have shown any lack of appetite for the fight but the war is surely soul-sapping nonetheless.
In the fallout of the CAS ruling in 2019, the Mail & Guardian ran an article headlined “Semenya verdict ‘beyond absurd’”. It drew on experts who had been left flabbergasted by the leaps in logic on the court floor that ultimately prevailed. In the time since, World Athletics has tightened up its wonky regulations. This includes applying the testosterone protocols across all events.
Pointing this out is not an effort to undermine the victory in the European court, which might turn out to be hugely significant. Rather, we should remind ourselves that the forces working against Semenya remain powerful and won’t recede.To this, she would probably respond that the fight stopped being about her a long time ago. She is fighting for precedents that will define the future of women’s athletics. In whatever battles are to come she deserves our full support. A luta continua.