The track and field athlete Caster Semenya has grown quiet, at least in her career on the tartan track. In February, the South African set a national record, albeit over the rarely run 300 meters in 36.78 seconds. Then came the pandemic. From then on, Semenya contented herself with uploading pictures from previous years in the social networks, on which she bounced away from the world’s best on the middle distance, over 800 and 1500 meters. “Social distancing at its best”, she wrote under the photos: Look, this is how keeping your distance is possible!
Semenya did not generate a larger volume of news until autumn. The Swiss Federal Supreme Court confirmed a controversial paragraph that the World Athletics Federation had heaved into its regulations in 2018. Runners like Semenya, born with so-called Differences of Sex Developments (DSD), are only allowed to start in international races between the 400 meters and a mile if they force their naturally elevated testosterone level below a limit, for example with medication. Semenya took legal action against it, before the International Sports Court Cas in Lausanne, then before the Swiss Federal Court, without success. Most recently, she announced that she would go to the European Court of Human Rights. The 29-year-old does not accept that: as a healthy person in sport, she is only considered a woman when she swallows pills.
She is no longer alone in this. The human rights organization Human Rights Watch (HRW) criticizes in a new report that the SZ has received, the corresponding testosterone paragraphs as a “human rights violation”. The athletics umbrella organization World Athletics (WA), so a central demand, must immediately shut down the controversial rule. As long as this does not happen, governments should freeze their funding flows to all participating world and national associations.
Semenya is a woman, but has a set of chromosomes that develop male characteristics
The debate about DSD athletes like Semenya has preoccupied the sport for over a decade, it’s like a marathon without a finish line; which is also due to the fact that the debate inevitably produces a loser, however you twist and turn it. Semenya had surprisingly rushed to World Cup gold over 800 meters in Berlin in 2009, within a year she had trimmed her best time by 15 seconds, to 1: 55.45 minutes. And Pierre Weiss, then Secretary General of the World Federation, did not exactly help to stifle the whisper: “She is a woman,” he said after Semenya’s World Cup success, “but maybe not 100 percent.”
Today we know that Semenya was socialized as a woman, but has a set of chromosomes that develop male characteristics: 46 XY is the disposition. Nature does not divide as sharply as sport with its binary categories: schoolchildren, young people. Men women.
The world association was overwhelmed by this for a long time. In 2011 he installed the first paragraph for DSD athletes: Either they lower their testosterone levels or they are not allowed to start in international races. Semenya chose the former path, and her performance soon plummeted. She later said she “felt like a guinea pig”, being fed medication on behalf of the officials. In 2015, the CAS suspended the paragraph because the scientific evidence was insufficient for it. Soon Semenya ran into everything again. In 2018, the world association published a study that seemed to confirm what many suspected: DSD athletes are up to 4.5 percent more productive than women with normal values thanks to their testosterone levels. A big difference – if it’s true. So: swallow medication again, otherwise no right to start.
The CAS classified the new rule as “discriminatory” last year; he was also very concerned that healthy athletes should now swallow medication again. On the other hand, he considered discrimination a “necessary, appropriate means”. The rights of women who have no chance against runners with DSD predisposition weigh more heavily.
The World Athletics Federation rejects the allegations on SZ request
It is also this fact that violates “fundamental rights of dignity and privacy”, as the HRW report now argues. Last year the authors of the report interviewed 13 female athletes from the “global southern hemisphere”, as well as trainers, lawyers, ethicists, doctors and reporters. Their conclusion: athletics, including the International Olympic Committee (IOC), would nourish a biotope with their regulations, “which forces women to undergo invasive and unnecessary medical interventions in order to take part in competitions”. The World Athletics Federation rejects this in response to a request from SZ: The report was not written by independent experts, WA said, with no possibility for the association to express its view of things. One remains “committed to fairness for women in sport” and denies that “biological limit values are based on racial or gender stereotypes”.
An example from the new report is a long-distance runner anonymized as “DB”. Doping testers found an elevated testosterone level in one of their urine samples, at least the suspected “DB”. In any case, a functionary of her national association invited her to a hospital in March 2014 without saying why; that’s how the athlete tells it. The doctors arranged for an ultrasound and blood tests, but they never found out the results. The functionary only said later that the world federation had become aware of her and that she had two options: medication or an operation. Not more.
From then on she was “more and more monitored”, the functionary kept calling and urging an operation. But “DB” had long been skeptical. Her trainer also advised against the operation. She then “just kept still”, continued racing, and also gave blood and urine samples for doping tests. A year ago, the CAS had just confirmed the new testosterone paragraph, she received a letter from the world association: Your international results were retroactively canceled.
The HRW report illustrates further shocking examples
Annett Ngesa, a middle-distance runner from Uganda, was hit far worse, as an ARD documentary described in 2019. Her testosterone levels were also noticed at some point, and she too had been pressured into examinations, she said, carried out in a hospital in Nice, whose doctors cooperate closely with the WA and other associations on DSD issues. She also received no results, only the advice to visit a doctor in Uganda’s capital Kampala. There the doctor assured him that he would perform “a simple operation”, “like an injection”. When Ngesa woke up later, she was amazed at cuts in the abdomen. Only later did she find out that the doctor had performed an orchiectomy – a removal of the sex organs.
The HRW Report illustrates further, often shocking examples: An athlete was examined in the intimate area without warning, which could constitute the “offense of sexual violence”. As soon as athletes found out about their elevated testosterone levels, they would often be informed in bits, if at all. Many are faced with a “choice that isn’t a choice”: either medication or surgery, or their careers are over. What did their predisposition have to do with it? Side effects? That they could of course continue to do sports, just not at international races? That often goes under.
The World Athletics Federation always emphasizes that you don’t force anyone to undergo an operation – but it still sees the procedure as an option. Otherwise, criticizes the HRW report, the WA has a responsibility: “Anyone can raise doubts at the medical department of the world association”, is criticized, in other words: Anyone can blacken athletes. According to a central criticism of the report, this “exposes all female athletes to constant and arbitrary surveillance”.
And of course, according to the authors, the regulations also tear deep furrows in the lives of athletes. Test results would often leak to the media; also the offer of the world association to set up a third starting class or to let DSD women start with the men would inevitably bring the athletes into the public eye. The associated social stigma is enormous, especially in patriarchal societies, from which many of the athletes concerned come. Anett Ngesa, for example: After her unwanted operation, she first lost her shape, then her university scholarship, and finally the recognition of her home community. When the pressure became too great, she fled to Germany, and in 2019 the Federal Republic of Germany granted her asylum. Other respondents in the HRW Report report that their caregivers recommended wearing makeup or stuffed bras “to look more like women”. Some had been advised to have “cosmetic genital operations”.
Of all the bad solutions, the best has to be found
Officials like Stéphane Bermon, who has headed the world association’s health and science department since 2018, would additionally poison the debate, according to the report. Bermon had only said last year: He does not understand “that these athletes resist treatment that strengthens their feminine identity”.
It was also Bermon who largely designed the latest study by the world association on which the new testosterone regulation is based. The study has long been criticized: up to a third of the values are wrong, scientists criticized; some data were counted twice, others could not be assigned to any athlete. Other experts criticize that testosterone alone cannot establish the great advantage that DSD athletes undoubtedly enjoy. The courts that were dealing with the case, of course, saw it differently so far. The world association also refers to this: It considers its paragraphs to be “objective” and scientifically sound, the regulations thus serve “to maintain fair and meaningful competition in the female category”.
This in turn touches on the core problem that the HRW report also circumvents: that athletics competition without limit values for DSD athletes, as required by the human rights organization, again subjects the competition to a huge imbalance. This dilemma is illustrated by the 800-meter women’s final of the past summer games. In 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, Semenya stormed everyone off, behind her, safe from the rest of the field, two other suspected DSD athletes ran for silver and bronze, Francine Nyonsaba (Burundi) and Margaret Wambui (Kenya).
On the other hand: It can hardly remain as stubborn and insensitive as sport is currently moderating this topic. Alternatives? Probably the one that among all bad solutions the best one has to be found, with clearer criteria such as how DSD athletes should be advised. What the HRW report has undoubtedly shown: that this process can no longer be carried out over the heads – or even the rights – of those affected.