Olympic Runner Caster Semenya Wins Case Against Testosterone Rules

In 2018, World Athletics insisted Semenya's natural testosterone levels were too high for her to compete as a woman. Now, that arbitrary measure could change.

Olympic Runner Caster Semenya Wins Case Against Testosterone Rules
Photo:Andy Lyons/Getty Images for World Athletics (Getty Images)

After nearly five years of legal battles, Olympic champion Caster Semenya won her appeal against testosterone mandates in the Olympic track and field competition on Tuesday, according to the Associated Press. The victory marks an incremental but significant change in the tide in the fight for Olympic athletes—and athletes of all ages and abilities—to compete in alignment with their chosen gender identity.

Semenya, the 32-year-old South African athlete who won gold in the 800-meter races in 2012 and 2016, was barred from participating in the 2021 Tokyo Olympics after World Athletes (the governing body for Olympic track and field) deemed her naturally occurring testosterone levels too high for her to compete in the women’s race. Despite being assigned female at birth and identifying as a woman her entire life, Semenya is a DSD (differences in sex development) athlete, meaning her natural testosterone levels are higher than the medical community considers typical for women.

However, on Tuesday, the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France ruled that World Athletes had discriminated against Semenya by forcing her to medically reduce her natural hormone levels in order to compete. The ruling reportedly claimed that the regulations infringed on Semenya’s human rights, called into question the rules’ “validity,” and pointed out the “lack of evidence” that high levels of testosterone give women athletes a competitive edge.

Though Semenya had been able to compete with women without issue for most of her career, in 2019, World Athletics began enforcing rules that required athletes like Semenya to reduce their testosterone levels to a random mark that organizers believed would no longer give them an unfair competitive advantage (a claim that various medical groups have repeatedly stated there is not enough evidence to make). For Semenya to compete, she would need to take daily contraceptive pills, start hormone-blocking injections, or undergo surgery to decrease the amount of natural testosterone in her body.

Semenya has lost four years of her peak athletic performance to a fight in which she’s had to prove she deserves the opportunity to compete in sports as herself. And though she’s still aiming for a bid to compete in Paris 2024, she has just over a year to prepare, and her ongoing legal battles might take years to reach their final outcome. Unfortunately, Tuesday’s victory does not mean that World Athletics must immediately drop its hormone-monitoring rules, only that the Swiss supreme court, which previously ruled against Semenya, will now have a chance to reconsider.

In a statement Tuesday, World Athletics said its rules would “remain in place.”

“We remain of the view that the…regulations are a necessary, reasonable and proportionate means of protecting fair competition in the female category as the Court of Arbitration for Sport and Swiss Federal Tribunal both found,” World Athletics said.

As with the vitriol towards trans girls competing in sports—or girls competing in sports who are violated and investigated simply for being “too good” at sports—the Olympics’ dealings with nonbinary, trans, intersex, and DSD athletes time and time again has shown us that it values the feelings and rights of cis athletes above all else. And while Semenya’s win this week is a great sign of positive change to come, it’s an ongoing uphill battle that relies on the common decency of bureaucratic organizations that often seem to have none. We’ve said it before, and we’ll say it again: Let her run.

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