Caster Semenya’s participation at SA Champs in doubt after new guidelines for DSD athletes
New guidelines for athletes with differences of sex development might exclude Caster Semenya from the 2023 SA Champs.
Last week’s World Athletics ban on transgender athletes competing in the female category and stricter controls on testosterone levels in athletes with differences of sex development (DSD), have created a potential problem at the South African Athletics Championships (SA Champs), starting in Potchefstroom on 30 March.
Caster Semenya, the highest-profile DSD athlete on the planet, has been left uncertain about whether she can compete. Her next outing was supposed to be at this coming weekend’s SA Champs, but the situation is now unclear.
“We will not comment at this stage, save to say we are dealing with the same fighting spirit of Caster,” her long-time lawyer Greg Nott told Daily Maverick.
Daily Maverick also contacted Athletics South Africa (ASA) for clarity on whether Semenya can compete as the ban and new restrictions only come into effect on 31 March — the second day of the national championships. But at the time of publishing, there was no response from the ASA.
Last week, World Athletics banned all transgender athletes (currently, there are none at elite level) from competing in women’s events. The council also voted to tighten restrictions on athletes with DSD, cutting the maximum amount of plasma testosterone for athletes in half, to 2.5 nanomoles per litre from five.
DSD athletes will have to reduce their testosterone levels below the new limit for a minimum of 24 months to compete internationally in any elite event in the female category.
DSD athletes have male testes but do not produce enough of the hormone dihydrotestosterone (DHT) that is necessary for the formation of male external genitalia.
World Athletics President Sebastian Coe said the decisions were made in consultation with numerous stakeholders, including 40 member federations, coaches and athletes, plus a range of community groups including trans groups, United Nations experts and the International Olympic Committee.
At 33, Semenya’s high-profile career, which has yielded two Olympic 800m gold medals, has been in limbo for several years as the sport grapples with the issue of transgender and DSD athletes.
Grace and determination
Semenya has battled through it all with grace and determination, but after last week’s World Athletics decision, she is increasingly being backed into an ever-smaller corner.
Earlier in her career, Semenya took testosterone-lowering drugs at great cost to her physical and mental well-being. She revealed details of her anguish in an interview with HBO’s Real Sports and has been fighting for her right to compete through the courts.
“They thought I had a dick, probably,” Semenya says in the interview. “I told them, ‘It’s fine. I’m a female, I don’t care. If you want to see I’m a woman, I will show you my vagina. Alright?’
“It [the drugs] made me sick, made me gain weight, panic attacks, I don’t know if I was going to have a heart attack,” she says. “It’s like stabbing yourself with a knife every day. But I had no choice.
“I’m 18, I want to run, I want to make it to [the] Olympics, that’s the only option for me. But I had to make it work.”
She subsequently refused to continue taking the hormone-suppressing drugs and fought in the courts for her right to compete — without success — after authorities placed a blanket ban on DSD athletes who failed to meet the minimum testosterone level from competing in races from 400m to a mile.
Before the Tokyo Olympics (in 2021), Semenya challenged the rule at the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS), but lost when three judges ruled against her in May 2019.
She took the case further, unsuccessfully appealing at the Swiss Federal Tribunal, Switzerland’s highest court that oversees the CAS.
After failure on appeal, Semenya and her legal team took the case to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). Her legal team argued that the International Amateur Athletics Federation (IAAF) rule violated Semenya’s right to privacy and to practise her profession, and caused her to suffer “treatment contrary to her human dignity, her physical and mental integrity, and her social and gender identity”.
It has essentially moved the case from one about biology and competing, to a case about gender, race and politics.
To add more complexity to an already complex situation, shortly after the Tokyo 2020 Olympics ended (in August 2021), the British Journal of Sports Medicine issued a correction to a 2017 study.
It was significant because the IAAF case and subsequent regulations to decrease testosterone levels were based on that original study.
The correction stated that its findings were “exploratory” and “could have been misleading”. That outcome incensed the Semenya legal team because the retraction came after the Olympics were over.
Athletics moves on
While the ECHR case is not concluded, the sport of athletics moves on, with stricter rules for Semenya and other prominent athletes such as Olympic 200m silver medallist Christine Mboma.
The Namibian flyer is also a DSD athlete and is trained by South African Henk Botha. Although Mboma wasn’t set to run at the SA Champs, she was hoping to compete at the World Championships in Budapest in August.
That dream has died because she needs to reduce her hormone levels to the prescribed levels over a two-year period. It could possibly rule her out of the 2024 Paris Olympics as well.
“It was a bit of a shock, receiving it without any prior notice once again,” Henk Botha told BBC Sport Africa.
“The rumours were running through the whole [of] Europe and some of the people were telling me this is coming. World Athletics haven’t contacted anybody.
“Christine knows about the updated rules and we’ve discussed it. She’s positive and we will keep on training.
“For us, this is an obstacle, but not the end,” Botha told the BBC.
“Challenging World Athletics in the court, obviously, is expensive and a long thing. We need to go and look at every single option on the table and take it from there.
“My own opinion is [that] it’s time for the world to stand up against things like this and the way this has been handled.”
Many experts argue that lowering testosterone levels for transgender women is not enough to offset the physical benefits accrued by going through male puberty.
It’s a biological fact that males are, on average, taller, faster and physically stronger than females. They have larger muscles of more density, wider shoulders, narrower pelvises, and larger hearts and lungs.
They possess more fast-twitch muscle fibre and longer limbs, which are all a result of going through male puberty.
Obviously, elite female athletes will outperform most men, but when placing elite females against elite males, the picture is vastly different.
In 2022 alone, 1,972 men ran the 100m faster than the fastest woman, Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce, according to recorded stats by World Athletics. As events move away from power to endurance, the numbers drop off slightly, but even in the marathon, 617 men ran faster than the fastest women.
Fraser-Pryce runs faster than 99.99% of the global population, male or female, but at the elite level, she’d battle to be among the top 2,000 men.
That in no way diminishes her exceptional talent and work ethic but, were it not for a female category, Fraser-Pryce would be a fast human but not among the elite on the planet.
This is the crux of the argument against allowing transgender women, who have gone through male puberty, and even DSD athletes, who have naturally high levels of testosterone, from competing in the female division of sports.
Transgender advocates argue that transgender women do not identify as male and therefore should compete as female (as those are the only two categories that currently exist).
In a sporting context, gender identity and physiology are not aligned, especially in elite sports. DM