Despite Claims To The Contrary, The IAAF Is Still Persecuting Caster Semenya

We may earn a commission from links on this page.

The Times reported yesterday that the International Association of Athletics Federation (IAAF) will argue in front of the Court for Arbitration for Sport (CAS) that Caster Semenya, the 2016 Olympic champion in the 800 meters, is “biologically male.” The IAAF quickly issued a statement denying this claim, but did acknowledge that they plan to argue that Semenya and others like her should have to alter their natural testosterone levels in order to continue competing.

From the Times:

Lawyers for the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) are preparing to argue at the Court of Arbitration of Sport that Semenya, 28, and other runners like her should be treated as female but are biologically male and should take testosterone suppressants before competing in middle-distance events in which the hormone has its greatest effect.


The IAAF responded with a statement: “To the contrary, we accept their legal sex without question, and permit them to compete in the female category.”

Though they claim to accept Semenya’s sex, the IAAF still doesn’t want to let her and other athletes like her compete against women unless they modify their natural testosterone levels. From The Guardian:

Explaining its position, the IAAF said: “If a DSD athlete has testes and male levels of testosterone, they get the same increases in bone and muscle size and strength and increases in haemoglobin that a male gets when they go through puberty, which is what gives men such a performance advantage over women.

“Therefore, to preserve fair competition in the female category, it is necessary to require DSD athletes to reduce their testosterone down to female levels before they compete at international level.”


It’s hard not to view these rules as specifically targeting Semenya, since the IAAF only applies testosterone limits on three mid-distance running events, leaving out hammer throw and pole vault, two events in which the IAAF’s own commissioned study showed that women with naturally high levels of testosterone had the most significant competitive advantages. Semenya is fighting these regulations and the CAS is expected to issue its ruling on the matter next week.

In 2016, bioethicist Katrina Karkazis said this about testing for testosterone levels:

Despite the scientific-sounding rationale about competitive advantage, only the screening criterion has changed; it’s now testosterone levels. Unlike chromosomes, T levels can be manipulated, and so for the first time women are required—effectively coerced—to change their bodies to maintain eligibility, consequently “violat[ing] ethical standards of clinical practice and constitut[ing] a biomedical violence.”

And as many have noted, the women who are singled out for extra scrutiny tend to be non-white and from the global south. In 2016, Jennifer Doyle wrote:

Women athletes who perform above people’s expectations regarding women’s capacity — especially when they are black — are scrutinized not as athletes, but as women. Meaning: they are evaluated according to a racist and sexist sense of what defines women. Any aspect of her being which defies that image, which is in conflict with cultural notions about what makes a woman a woman is at risk of being identified as having “unfair” advantage — she is, in this view, a threat to other women.


Perhaps the best comment on this topic come from Semenya herself. Last year, when the new testosterone rules were announced, she said, “I am Mokgadi Caster Semenya. I am a woman and I am fast.”