Earlier this week the Swiss Supreme Court denied Caster Semenya’s appeal of the IAAF’s decision to impose chemical modifications on the runner. Told in June that she would need to medically reduce the levels of testosterone in her body, Semenya said she would not comply and she launched an appeal of the decision.
The Swiss court had said earlier Semenya could still compete, unaltered, while a final decision was pending, but now the court has reversed that decision.
What that mans is that Semenya cannot compete in her preferred races (800 metres) because the IAAF says she she can only run in her natural state in races less than 400 metres or more than a mile in length.
With the Worlds coming in September and prep for the Tokyo Olympics next summer, there is no time for Semenya to comply with the medical demand (six months in treatment is required before she can race) even if she agreed to do it.
This is a problematic decision on a couple of fronts. One, supposing Semenya agreed to the chemical alteration while the Swiss Court continued its deliberations, if they decide to dismiss the IAAF ruling, she would have undergone medical intervention unnecessarily and perhaps negatively affecting her performance in the long term.
Two, upholding the IAAF ruling as an interim measure already gives the medical intervention some weight as a legitimate approach to dealing with individuals who have higher than expected levels of testosterone and who identify/consider themselves female.
Since the ruling only affects females (there’s no issue with males whose hormone levels don’t fall into the range considered acceptable for men), we have here another example of how medical intervention is being used to manage women’s behaviour.
Don’t get me wrong — I think there is a time and place for medical intervention when warranted. I know many people who have benefited from drug therapy and not only for mental health issues. However, we also know how often medical intervention has been used to control or modify women’s behaviour in the past, from hysteria to forced sterilization.
I think it is worth noting too, that Semenya as a black woman, is also facing a racialized challenge to her physical excellence on the track. While we may think we are more civilized in the 21st century, is the IAAF’s ruling that distant from the gynecological experiment performed on enslaved black women in the 19th century?
The IAF based its decision on limited science as discussed in this CBC article. In many respects, forcing Semenya and other athletes classified as having differences of sexual development (DDS) to undergo medical alteration through drugs is experimentation. While we have evidence documenting the effect of drugs used to aid transition from one sex to another, we have limited evidence on how above average levels of testosterone benefits athletes. To quote my earlier post on Semenya and the IAAF ruling:
There is a lot of disagreement about what the advantage means, and a key part of the legal argument put forward by Semenya’s legal team was the lack of rigour used by the IAAF in setting its standards. The CBC referenced a recent editorial in the British Medical Journal that cited several problems with the IAAF’s own methodology, and most damningly they said the IAAF’s results could not be reproduced:
“… the authors noted the criticisms of an analysis commissioned by the IAAF which found that women whose serum testosterone levels were in the top third performed significantly better than women with levels in the lowest third. Those results, Tannenbaum and Bekker claim, could not be independently reproduced, and the data does not reliably mirror the source track times of athletes from the 2011 and 2013 world championships.”
We should be worried about this latest development in the Semenya case. The value of women’s contribution and performance in sport has been questioned, with the most recent examples being the women’s World Cup in soccer, the Tour de France, and Serena William’s accomplishments in tennis. We should be asking why people, especially the men at the executive levels in sport, are afraid when women aim to be and succeed at being faster, higher, stronger? And yes, sometimes that means you will have someone who dominates a sport, like Semenya in track or Michael Phelps in swimming, but I see no effort to hobble him so others may exceed as they are doing with Semenya. Most importantly, we should be very concerned when courts and official sports bodies are making decisions, not based on science and established evidence, but on fear and emotion.
MarthaFitat55 is a writer based in St. John’s whose rage at injustice often fuels her workouts.