Female Runners with High Testosterone May Have to Take Suppressants or Not Compete

Female track athletes with naturally elevated levels of testosterone must decrease the hormone to participate in certain races at major competitions like the Olympics, the highest court in international sports said Wednesday in a landmark ruling amid the pitched debate over who can compete in women’s events.

The decision was a defeat for Caster Semenya, a two-time Olympic champion at 800 meters from South Africa, who had challenged proposed limits placed on female athletes with naturally elevated levels of the muscle-building hormone testosterone.

Running Track & Biology

At a time when the broader culture is moving toward an acceptance of gender fluidity, the ruling affirmed the sports world’s need for distinct gender lines, saying they were essential for the outcome of women’s events to be fair.

Semenya’s biology has been under scrutiny for a decade, ever since she burst on the scene at the 2009 world track and field championships and was subjected to sex tests following her victory. In South Africa, leaders complained of racism. The issue of whether a rare biological trait was causing an unfair advantage for Semenya and a small subset of women quickly morphed into a battle about privacy and human rights, and Semenya became its symbol. She has said little publicly about her specific biology other than stating that God made her the way she is.

In issuing its ruling the Swiss-based Court of Arbitration for Sport addressed the complicated, highly charged question involving fair play, gender identity, biology and human rights that track and field has been grappling with for decades: Since competition is divided into male and female categories, what is the most equitable way to decide who can compete in women’s events?

In a 2-to-1 decision, the court ruled that restrictions on permitted levels of naturally occurring testosterone were discriminatory but that such discrimination was a “necessary, reasonable and proportionate means” of achieving track and field’s goal of preserving the integrity of female competition.

It was a victory, though not a complete one, for track and field’s world governing body, the International Association of Athletics Federations. The federation said it was “grateful” for Wednesday’s ruling.

Future for The Athlete

Though the judges sided with the IAAF, they also expressed concerns about the practical implementation of the regulations and the lack of concrete evidence that elevated testosterone gives a performance advantage for two specific distances: 1500 meters and 1 mile. The panel determined enough evidence existed to limit participation in other distances, but recommended that those two races be exempt from the rules until more scientific evidence is produced.

If the IAAF agrees, Semenya may still be able to compete at those longer distances without taking testosterone-suppressing medication, but she couldn’t defend her 800-meter gold title at upcoming events like the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.

Semenya’s lawyers now have 30 days to file an appeal with Switzerland’s highest court. Her legal team said it’s still reviewing the decision and considering whether to appeal.

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