Court rules Olympic runner Caster Semenya must use hormone-suppressing drugs to compete

Semenya will now be forced to immediately begin medicating to suppress her testosterone levels for events like the world championships.

Caster Semenya South Africa Olympics
Caster Semenya lost her Court of Arbitration for Sport appeal against rules designed to decrease naturally high testosterone levels in some female runners. –The Associated Press

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The Court of Arbitration for Sport ruled Wednesday morning that Caster Semenya, a two-time Olympic champion and the subject of one of the biggest controversies the track and field world has seen, will have to take medications that suppress her testosterone output to continue competing at the sport’s highest levels.

Semenya lost her appeal before the court on Wednesday. She was challenging a controversial rule targeting women who naturally produce high levels of testosterone.

By a 2-1 margin, a panel of three judges sided with the IAAF, allowing the sport’s international governing body, to maintain its restrictions on athletes such as Semenya, a female competitor from South Africa who is believed to have an intersex condition that causes her body to naturally produce testosterone at levels much higher than most women.

In issuing its decision, the court agreed that the IAAF rules are discriminatory, “but the majority of the Panel found that, on the basis of the evidence submitted by the parties, such discrimination is a necessary, reasonable and proportionate means of achieving the IAAF’s aim of preserving the integrity of female athletics,” the court said in a news release.

If she chooses to compete in the world championships, which begin in September in Doha, Semenya, a two-time Olympic champion in the 800 meters, will now be forced to immediately begin medicating to suppress her testosterone levels. While the IAAF rule applies to the 400-, 800-, and 1,500-meter events – Semenya’s primary races – the CAS judges say the IAAF should not yet apply the rules to the 1,500.

Semenya reacted to the ruling Wednesday morning via Twitter, saying, “Sometimes it’s better to react with no reaction.”

Semenya, 28, has become a lightning rod of sorts on the track. She won gold in the 800 at the past two Olympics but many competitors feel she has an unfair biological advantage. Neither Semenya nor her lawyers had issued a comment on the court’s decision as of Wednesday morning. On Twitter, the runner posted a shrugging emoji along with the words: “Sometimes it’s better to react with no reaction.”

The ruling marks just the latest twist in a years-old tug-of-war between the IAAF and CAS. The court had previously suspended an IAAF rule in June 2015, eliminating any caps on acceptable testosterone levels but giving the IAAF an opportunity to further explore the issue.

The IAAF then commissioned a scientific study and last April announced the controversial new regulations. The governing body sought to require any athlete who has a Difference of Sexual Development (DSD) to lower her testosterone levels to compete against women in the world’s biggest track and field events.

Sebastian Coe, the IAAF president, said at the time the new rules were “about leveling the playing field to ensure fair and meaningful competition in the sport of athletics where success is determined by talent, dedication and hard work rather than other contributing factors.”

“Like many other sports we choose to have two classifications for our competition – men’s events and women’s events,” Coe said. “This means we need to be clear about the competition criteria for these two categories.”

The IAAF contended that it had compiled data showing testosterone “either naturally produced or artificially inserted into the body, provides significant performance advantages in female athletes.” The organization said heightened testosterone levels could improve performance by 5 percent or more.

Semenya had long been the public face of the issue and the subject of much media speculation. She’s a three-time world champion in the 800 and took gold at both the 2012 London Olympics and the Rio Games four years later. Last June, racing in Paris, Semenya posted her best-ever 800 time – a blistering 1:54.25 mark that was the fastest any woman had run in nearly a decade and currently stands fourth on the all-time list.

The new rule only applied to races contested at 400, 800 and 1,500 meters, which further cast the spotlight on Semenya. Along with her national federation, Semenya challenged the rule, which many in track circles took as confirmation that she has an intersex condition that causes her body to produce high levels of testosterone.

Semenya has said little publicly about her condition but in protesting the matter to CAS last June, she issued a statement, saying, “I am very upset that I have been pushed into the public spotlight again. I don’t like talking about this new rule. I just want to run naturally, the way I was born. It is not fair that I am told I must change. It is not fair that people question who I am. I am Mokgadi Caster Semenya. I am a woman and I am fast.”

Her legal team characterized the rule as “discriminatory, irrational, unjustifiable,” and Semenya challenged the IAAF on multiple grounds, saying the organization’s rules “continue the offensive practice of intrusive surveillance and judging of women’s bodies which has historically haunted women’s sports.”

The court held a hearing on the matter in February and originally planned to issue a decision by March 26, though the court later pushed back that date.

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