A new legal ruling says the South African runner is ineligible to compete in the women's 800-meter race, unless she takes hormone suppressants to lower her natural testosterone levels.

By Allie Strickler
August 01, 2019
Caster Semenya of South Africa crosses the line to win the Women's 800 metres during the IAAF Diamond League event at the Khalifa International Stadium on May 03, 2019 in Doha, Qatar
Credit: Getty Images/Francois Nel/Staff

Caster Semenya is one of the fastest runners in the world. But she's also one of the most scrutinized athletes in recent sports news—and now, history.

Semenya has naturally high testosterone levels, which some have argued puts her at an "unfair" advantage against other female runners. Back in April 2018, the track and field governing body, the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), issued new eligibility regulations that require female athletes with naturally high testosterone levels—like Semenya—to take hormone-suppressing medication before competing. Semenya immediately requested that these regulations be declared invalid on the basis of discrimination.

However, in May 2019, the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS), which helps to settle professional sports disputes, upheld the IAAF's regulations. The court conceded that the requirements are "discriminatory," but said that "such discrimination is a necessary, reasonable and proportionate means of achieving the IAAF's aim of preserving the integrity of female athletics in the Restricted Events," according to a press release.

The CAS' ruling didn't stop Semenya from standing up for herself: She filed an appeal with the Federal Supreme Court of Switzerland. In June, the Swiss court demanded that the IAAF immediately suspend its testosterone regulations—a huge win for Semenya. (Related: Does Testosterone Give Female Athletes a "Manly" Edge?)

This week, however, the 28-year-old athlete suffered a major setback when the Swiss Supreme Court reversed its June decision, reimposing the IAAF's controversial hormone restrictions, according to The New York Times.

As a result, Semenya will not be able to defend her title as a two-time Olympic champion in the 800-meter race, she said in a statement. And it's not just Semenya who stands to be banned from their go-to events. Under this ruling, female athletes who compete in the 1,500-meter and shorter distances will be required to adhere to the IAAF-approved level of testosterone, according to Runner's World.

"This will not deter me from continuing my fight for the human rights of all of the female athletes concerned," Semenya continued in her statement.

Semenya Has Been Targeted by the IAAF for a Decade

The controversy surrounding testosterone levels in female athletes—particularly Semenya—was alive and well long before the IAAF's April 2018 regulations. After Semenya won the gold medal at the women's 800-meters race at the 2009 World Championships, the IAAF asked her to take a "gender verification test to prove she is a woman," according to The Guardian.

In 2010, Semenya announced she would continue to compete, despite mixed messaging from the IAAF regarding her eligibility. But a year later, the IAAF enacted restrictions for female athletes with hyperandrogenism (a medical condition that causes the body to naturally produce high levels of testosterone). Fortunately, the restrictions were overturned in 2015. During that time, Semenya had gone on to win the silver medal in the 2012 Summer Olympics, and gold in the 2016 Summer Olympics.

Throughout all of this, Semenya cooperated with IAAF officials. But she's never been silent about the discrimination she's faced in the process. "I have been subjected to unwarranted and invasive scrutiny of the most intimate and private details of my being," she said in a 2010 statement.

"For a decade the IAAF has tried to slow me down, but this has actually made me stronger," Semenya said in a statement after the IAAF's hormone restrictions were upheld by the CAS in May 2019. "I will once again rise above and continue to inspire young women and athletes in South Africa and around the world." (Related: Meet the Woman Who's Using Biking to Promote Gender Equality)

Male Athletes Aren't Subject to the Same Discrimination

The IAAF's scrutiny of Semenya is magnified when compared to the treatment of male athletes who have used performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs) to raise their testosterone (reminder: Semenya's elevated testosterone is natural, not drug-induced). Olympic sprinter Justin Gatlin, for instance, has been suspended twice for using PEDs. He's now one of the most talked-about athletes heading into the 2020 Olympics.

Then there's decorated Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps. His body naturally produces half the lactic acid of a typical athlete, leaving him significantly less fatigued and better equipped to compete. But no sports-governing body has deemed him ineligible to swim or asked him to take medication to change his body's lactic acid production. Why, then, should Semenya be subject to such strict regulations?

Semenya Continues to Fight for Her Right to Run

Semenya's most recent race was at the Prefontaine Classic in June, before the Swiss Supreme Court reversed its decision to allow her to race in her signature events. She set a meet record at 1 minute and 55 seconds in the women's 800-meter race–that's faster than four-minute-mile pace, for context. (Related: An Open Letter to Runners Who Think They're "Too Slow")

After finishing the race, Semenya told the press she was feeling good about her success. One reporter asked, "With everything that's been going on, how hard is it to be a runner?"

"It's not hard to be a runner," she responded confidently. "It's hard to manage time. I know how to handle situations. I know how to manage my time. I know how to focus on what I'm doing. I think other people's perceptions of me is their own problem, not my problem."

Rather than linger on the controversy surrounding her, Semenya said she focuses on the people who look up to her. "I don't want to disappoint them, I always have to be behaving in a good manner," she shared. "I'm just doing it for them and people who support me, people who always wanted me to do good, so I can never disappoint them, you understand? At the end of the day, we're all human, we make mistakes, but it's about how we handle ourselves."

As of now, Semenya is banned from international races between 400 meters and a mile, unless she takes hormone suppressants to lower her testosterone—leaving her with very few options to maintain her position as a top female athlete, according to The New York Times. But her resilience has yet to break.

"Don't go through life, grow through life," reads a text post she tweeted this week. She also tweeted: "When you close doors for me, there are others open, just to let you know."