Restricting Semenya is Sexist and Violates Human Rights
Caster Semenya is a female Olympic gold medalist runner from South Africa. She has hyperandrogenic qualities, which means she has higher testosterone levels than most women. On May 1, 2019, the International Association of Athletics Federation (IAAF) ruled that Semenya and athletes like her will have to medically reduce their testosterone levels in order to compete internationally in women’s events such as the Olympics. Early this week, the Swiss Supreme Court ordered the IAFF to suspend the implementation of their ruling. It’s not clear if the agency will appeal.
This ruling is a global outrage that extends far beyond the realm of sports. The IAAF ruling reinforces structures of heteronormativity, limits bodily autonomy and places unfair restrictions on women and intersex people, punishing individuals like Semenya for traits that are entirely out of their control.
Semenya emerged on the athletics scene in 2009, when she won gold in the 800m at the IAAF World Championships in Berlin; since then, she has been the target of controversy. After the race, one of her fellow competitors, Elina Cusma of Italy, called her a man. Purely because she “seemed masculine” to competitors and observers, the IAAF sidelined Semenya and subjected her to invasive sex-verification tests, which were then leaked to the public. The most intimate details of Semenya’s body were humiliatingly speculated on in the public eye.
According to The Washington Post, the Court of Arbitration for Sport noted that the ruling was actually discriminatory towards Semenya, but that “such discrimination is a necessary, reasonable and proportionate means of achieving the IAAF’s aim of preserving the integrity of female athletics.”
By saying a woman can only be defined as female and enjoy success if she has an arbitrary amount of testosterone, the IAAF has turned the hormone into something it is not: a myth of male greatness.
Would a man with elevated testosterone levels be banned from sport because he’s “too manly?” I think not. When a numerical cap is put on femininity through the lens of a “male” characteristic, it defines women’s value in terms of their proximity to masculine features. This ruling asserts that Semenya is not an amazing athlete because she has worked hard her entire life, or because she has overcome racism, sexism, and homophobia to succeed on the world stage, or because while the world was gossiping about her sex organs she won 29 consecutive races; instead, the IAAF asserts that Semenya’s success comes solely from her proximity to “maleness.”
The thing is, testosterone is not a male hormone, it’s a human one. All human beings have testosterone in their bodies, and while the hormone is linked to muscle growth and the development of male sexual characteristics, it’s also essential for healthy brain, liver, and metabolism functions. Semenya just has more testosterone than an average woman (and nowhere close to the levels of an average man). Elite athletics does not celebrate the average anyway. Nobody thinks we should ban Kevin Durant from playing basketball because he’s 6’9”, or Michael Phelps from swimming because of his massive wingspan.
Why do we celebrate male athletes with physical advantages but punish women for being “too good”? We celebrate the extraordinary in sports, that’s why we watch them. The IAAF aimed in their ruling to “preserve the integrity of female athletics,” but I implore us to think about the integrity of athletics, period. Is there integrity in an organization that medicates an individual when there is actually nothing wrong with them? Is there integrity in an organization that agrees their ruling is discriminatory, yet makes the call anyway?
The human rights implications of this ruling are vast. Julie Dorf, the lead advisor to the Equality Without Borders individual donor initiative, used her perspective as a human rights activist to counsel the donors who funded Caster’s defense. When I interviewed Dorf, she said that “One out of every 2,000 people on this planet has some variation that makes them not ‘traditional female’ or ‘traditional male,’” including anatomical, hormonal, or genetic differences. That’s about three million seven hundred and sixty-five thousand people. The IAAF's ruling suggests that the bodies of people outside of the incredibly tight bounds of traditional sex are somehow illegitimate or unfair. It prohibits those people from living freely as themselves. “It’s really a question of bodily autonomy and self-determination,” Dorf said, “And so I feel like we are going to see more situations like Caster’s case, whether it's in sports or schools or uniform policy… where we are debating questions of what are acceptable variations in naturally occurring human behavior and human bodies.”
As for Semenya, her response to this outrage has been relatively quiet so far. As she said repeatedly during the court proceedings, “I am a woman and I am fast.” She is rightfully both, and phenomenally so. The world just seems unable to keep up. In the meantime, Caster is back on the track where she belongs.
This piece was written as part of JWA’s Rising Voices Fellowship.
How to cite this page
Weiner, Molly. "Restricting Semenya is Sexist and Violates Human Rights ." 5 June 2019. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on September 25, 2023) <https://jwa.org/blog/risingvoices/restricting-semenya-sexist-and-violates-human-rights>.