It is difficult not to feel for Semenya

To tell an Olympic champion with naturally elevated testosterone levels that she must take medication to lower it if she wants to compete is cruel.

South Africa’s Caster Semenya, Olympic double gold medallist in the 800m, has been dealt a blow thanks to the Court of Arbitration for Sport endorsing the International Association of Athletics Federations’ stand.   -  AP

There is something deeply disturbing about a governing body asking an athlete to take performance-diminishing drugs. The International Association of Athletics Federations may have been compelled to lay down the definition of “femaleness” in order to satisfy those in the middle range of the gender spectrum. But to tell an Olympic champion with naturally elevated testosterone levels that she must take medication to lower it if she wants to compete is cruel. There is too the ethical question of a medically unnecessary procedure.

Caster Semenya, Olympic double gold medallist in the 800m, has been dealt the blow thanks to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) endorsing IAAF’s stand. In effect, CAS has ruled that for the purposes of the 800m, Semenya is not female; but for 5000m she qualifies as one. The confusion tells us more about our labelling system than about an athlete who has not been beaten over her distance since 2015 and 30 races.

Over 99% of females have around 0.12-1.79 nanomoles per litre of testosterone in their bodies. Those with differences in sex development (DSD) like Semenya are in the male range of 7.7-29.4 nmol/L.

Two significant aspects of the CAS decision are: a) it was not unanimous and b) the study that the ruling was based on is not conclusive. Either of these reasons should have been enough to retain the status quo.

Some DSD athletes might be testosterone-resistant, like our own Dutee Chand who too was banned but won her battle for rehabilitation. This is because the studies that the IAAF have followed have shown that advantage exists in the 400m to the mile range. Dutee is a sprinter, medal winner at the recent Asian Games in the 100m and 200m categories.

The CAS judgement has been praised by former athletes Paula Radcliffe and Sharron Davies who feel that allowing DSD athletes to run in women’s races places the rest at a disadvantage.

Other biological advantages do exist. Nordic skier Eero Mantyranta, for example, had a genetic condition that caused excessive production of red blood cells, giving him an advantage in endurance events.

The matter is no longer about sport but about gender and human rights and racism and sexism and identity and medical ethics. And majoritarianism. Semenya’s impact has gone beyond 800m. CAS conceded that the IAAF’s policy is “discriminatory” but said it was “necessary, reasonable and proportionate” to ensure fair competition in women’s sport.

Proof of gender is not a modern preoccupation; sex tests have existed since 1930. Testosterone levels as a test is as arbitrary as the rules that govern sports, like the size of the ball, duration of the game or length of the pitch. And till a better, safer, more acceptable test comes along, it will have to do, however unfair it is to athletes who have naturally elevated hormones.

It might be better to have an arbitrary rule than no rule at all. Still, it is difficult not to feel for Semenya. It wasn’t her fault.