Caster Semenya vs IAAF: What's athletic body's hyperandrogenism rule, and why some runners are backing it

  • Caster Semenya has challenged proposed IAAF rules that would force her to lower her testosterone levels to compete in 800m and 1,500m events.

  • The IAAF introduced Hyperandrogenism Regulations in 2011 to limit women to serum levels of natural testosterone below 10 nanomoles per litre of blood.

  • A section of athletes have in the past questioned Semenya's eligibility to compete in events, notably the Rio Olympics and the 2018 Commonwealth Games.

Caster Semenya's running future will be decided by three judges starting Monday in a landmark case that will challenge science and gender politics.

The two-time Olympic 800-metre champion from South Africa is looking to overturn eligibility rules for hyperandrogenic athletes proposed by track and field's governing body. The IAAF wants to require women with naturally elevated testosterone to lower their levels by medication before being allowed to compete in world-class races from 400 metres to one mile.

(Read Firstpost's detailed explainer about how the Caster Semenya case against the IAAF on hyperandrogenism will have wider ramifications in athletics, here)

 Caster Semenya vs IAAF: Whats athletic bodys hyperandrogenism rule, and why some runners are backing it

Caster Semenya’s running future will be decided by the Court of Arbitration for Sport in a landmark case. AP/Petr David Josek, File

A scheduled five-day appeal case is among the longest ever heard by the Court of Arbitration for Sport. The verdict, expected next month, could also be among the most ethically controversial in the sports court's 35-year history.

The panel of three CAS judges could decide based only on science: Can the IAAF prove women with Differences of Sexual Development (DSD) get a significant performance advantage from male levels of testosterone.

IAAF's case

The IAAF introduced hyperandrogenism regulations in 2011 to replace the gender policy with guidance limiting women to serum levels of natural testosterone below 10 nanomoles per litre of blood. Semenya then finished second in the 800m race at the 2012 London Olympics in 1:57.23, but was later upgraded to gold after the original winner was disqualified for doping.

The IAAF's regulations were later blocked by Indian sprinter Dutee Chand, who won a CAS verdict in 2015. Three judges said the IAAF did not prove hyperandrogenic women gained a significant advantage and invited the governing body to submit new evidence.

The IAAF published its research in a British medical journal in 2017, using data from athletes at the 2011 and 2013 IAAF World Championships.

It claimed 7.1 in every 1,000 elite female athletes had elevated testosterone levels, 140 times higher than the general population. This helped give a supposed performance advantage of 1.8 to 4.5 percent in events from 400 to 1,500 metres.

The proposed solution was requiring women to medicate — likely with contraceptive pills — to bring testosterone levels below 5 nmol/L for at least six months before competing at elite events such as the Olympics, World Championships or Diamond League meets.

After the IAAF passed new regulations in April last year, its president and two-time Olympic gold medallist Sebastian Coe said, "We want athletes to be incentivised to make the huge commitment and sacrifice required to excel in the sport, and to inspire new generations to join the sport and aspire to the same excellence."

Section of runners back IAAF

While the rules were suspended, Semenya won a second Olympic title at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Games in 1:55.28 secs — more than four seconds faster than her best time over the previous two seasons. Burundi's Francine Niyonsaba and Kenya's Margaret Wambui finished second and third behind Semenya.

However, as several media organisations pointed out, the reactions from fellow racers to the all-African podium had racist undertones to it.

"These colleagues have a very high testosterone level, similar to a male's, which is why they look how they look and run like they run," said Poland's Joanna Jozwik, who finished fifth behind Canada's Melissa Bishop.

"[Bishop] improved her personal best and was fourth. It's sad, and I think she should be the gold medallist. I'm glad I'm the first European, the second white." Jozwik added.

"On my way to the stadium, I was walking behind Wambui, who is three times bigger than me. How should I feel? She has a big calf, a big foot, she makes a step like three of my steps," said Jozwik, adopting the familiar racist view of black female athletes being "muscular and manly".

Great Britain's Lynsey Sharp finished sixth in the race and later tearfully voiced her frustrations on Semenya's participation.

"I have tried to avoid the issue all year. You can see how emotional it all was. We know how each other feels.

"It is out of our control and how much we rely on people at the top sorting it out. The public can see how difficult it is with the change of rule but all we can do is give it our best," Sharp said.

In a deleted tweet, British 400m runner Nigel Levine said: "Happy for @LynseySharp for coming 3rd in the women 800m."

Marathon world-record holder Paula Radcliffe, who is also one of the prominent supporters of IAAF's regulation, believes that Semenya is being unfairly targetted.

"To make it about Caster Semenya is completely unfair to her. Why should she be made the poster person for this? If this was one person we wouldn't be facing this issue. We'd just let it happen. It's the fact that it's not, and girls on the start line know they're never going to get a medal in an 800m. That's the bottom line," Radcliffe was quoted as saying to the Press Association.

At the 2018 Commonwealth Games, Australian 800m runner Brittany McGowan and Scottish 1,500m runner Eilish McColgan cried foul of Semenya's continued inclusion in international events after the South African stormed to victory in both events.

McGowan said that the race timings of athletes competing alongside Semenya should not be compared with that of the South African.

"It's tough for a lot of women in the 800m, 400m and 1500m at the moment to compare ourselves and be judged by our governing bodies on those times," McGowan said.

Why are athletics world body's critics claiming its hyperandrogenism rules are racist and unfair

With inputs from The Associated Press

Updated Date: Feb 18, 2019 20:40:04 IST