Forcing women like Caster Semenya to medicate to compete in sport is being called a 'dangerous precedent' — here's why

  • Caster Semenya lost her case against the IAAF on Wednesday, when the Court of Arbitration for Sport ruled against her.
  • This means that if she wishes to continue competing in women's middle-distance running events, she will have to artificially lower her testosterone levels.
  • The ruling has attracted widespread condemnation.
  • The LGBT charity Stonewall told Business Insider that women's sport had taken a step back and that the ruling set a "dangerous precedent" for many communities.
  • Semenya believes the IAAF has always targeted her but said the ruling would not hold her back.
  • Visit Business Insider's home page for more stories.

Critics are speaking out about this week's ruling that will force Caster Semenya to artificially lower her natural testosterone levels to continue competing in women's events, a decision one LGBT-rights group says sets a "dangerous precedent" for multiple communities and represents a backward step for women's sport.

A director at the prominent LGBT charity Stonewall told Business Insider in a statement this week that the organization was "deeply" disappointed with the Court of Arbitration for Sport, an international governing body that on Wednesday ruled in favor of the International Association of Athletics Federations, which believes testosterone levels in some female middle-distance runners must be restricted.

The ruling will have an immediate impact on Semenya, who won gold in the 800 meters at both the 2012 and 2016 Olympic Games and according to the BBC is an athlete with "differences of sexual development."

The British National Health Service defines DSD as a "group of rare conditions where the reproductive organs and genitals don't develop as expected."

According to the NHS, "if you have a DSD, you'll have a mix of male and female sexual characteristics."

A person with DSD, sometimes called "intersex," may have sex chromosomes traditionally associated with being male or female but have reproductive organs or genitals associated with the opposite sex, not clearly of one sex or the other, or a mixture of the sexes.

The BBC says DSD "can lead to higher levels of testosterone — a hormone that increases muscle mass, strength, and hemoglobin, which affects endurance."

As Semenya has lost her case against the IAAF, as per the arbitration ruling, she must eventually take medication to lower her testosterone level if she wants to continue competing in women's middle-distance running events.

The BBC reports that the rules will apply only to women in track distances ranging from 400 meters to the mile, leaving sprint athletes and long-distance runners unaffected.

"It's deeply disappointing to hear the CAS has ruled against Caster Semenya," Kirsty Clarke, the director of sport at Stonewall, told Business Insider.

She added that the ruling set a "dangerous precedent" as it would regulate "how people — particularly women — participate in sport."

The BBC reported that the Court of Arbitration for Sport itself acknowledged the regulations were discriminatory but considered them "necessary" to "protect the integrity" of women's athletics.

Stonewall's Clarke told Business Insider that the acknowledgment of discrimination presented "a huge issue."

Athletics South Africa, the national governing body for athletics in South Africa, Semenya's home country, also expressed outrage at the ruling, comparing it to South Africa's apartheid system of institutionalized racial segregation that existed from 1948 to 1994.

"South Africa knows discrimination better and CAS has seen it fit to open the wounds of apartheid, a system of discrimination condemned by the whole world as a crime against humanity," ASA said, according to Reuters.

"We believe their decision is disgraceful," ASA said. "We are reeling in shock at how a body held in high esteem like the CAS can endorse discrimination without flinching. For CAS does not only condone discrimination but also goes to lengths to justify it, only undermines the integrity that this body is entrusted with. We are deeply disappointed and profoundly shocked."

Semenya with the gold medal she won at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro.
Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images

The World Medical Association, an international and independent confederation of medical associations, is also against medicating DSD athletes to reduce their testosterone levels.

"The WMA fears the regulations would constrain the athletes concerned to take unjustified medication, not based on medical need, in order for them to be allowed to compete, and accordingly require physicians to prescribe such medication," it said one week before the CAS ruling.

The WMA added that it was considered "unethical" to prescribe treatments for this, and it called on physicians around the world to "oppose and refuse to perform any test or administer any treatment" because it "might be harmful to the athlete."

A ruling with wide ramifications

Stonewall's Clarke told Business Insider that Semenya and intersex middle-distance runners would not be the only athletes affected, as people "wrongly conflate" intersex with transgender people's rights.

Read more: The biggest thing critics continually get wrong about transgender athletes competing in women's sports

"Running alongside Semenya's case — and often wrongly conflated — is the divisive debate about trans people's right to play sports," Clarke said.

"The reality is that many trans people still feel unwelcome, or even actively excluded from playing sports. We have long been concerned about the impact that these debates have. When you question one group's rights you expose the rights of everyone to be questioned, scrutinized, and even limited.

"In this case, women's sport has taken a step back because of misinformed debates about what women's bodies should be capable of, rather than what they are capable of."

Semenya said the IAAF had "always targeted me specifically," according to the BBC.

"For a decade the IAAF has tried to slow me down, but this has actually made me stronger," she said. "The decision of CAS will not hold me back.

"I will once again rise above and continue to inspire young women and athletes in South Africa and around the world."

Semenya will still be able to compete at the coming Diamond League event in Doha, Qatar, on Friday, and can appeal the CAS decision to the Swiss Tribunal Courts, the BBC says, but will otherwise have to become testosterone compliant in the months ahead to continue competing in women's events.

"The fact that some women, including Semenya, may now have to inhibit their performance or face expulsion from sport is a wake-up call and we, along with many others, are concerned about the potential impact this judgment could have across all of women's sport," Clarke said.

"At Stonewall, we believe what's happened is a missed opportunity to send a positive message to women of all races, shapes, sizes, and abilities that sport is open and welcoming of everyone."