“I just want to run naturally the way I was born. It is not fair that I am told I must change. I am Mokgadi Caster Semenya. I am a woman, and I am fast.”
Semenya’s statement, strong and determined, sums up the South African athlete’s side of the fight against the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) at the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS). A decision is expected on May 1.
Across the world, many other disciplines are looking at what could be a landmark judgement for women, and no matter which way the scale tilts at the CAS, women’s sport will not be the same again.
Also Read | Jithin Paul vs NADA: Doping and the Indian Athlete
The 2016 Olympic champion’s direct fight is against the IAAF’s (Differences of Sex Development) DSD Regulation, introduced last year. The regulation would force Semenya, and women athletes similar to her who have a higher than normal range of testosterone, to lower the values by unnatural means and medications in order to be eligible to take part in elite international competitions in specific events (400m to 1500m). She would be forced to undergo frequent tests and monitoring, train through the changes that her body would undergo with all the chemicals pumped in, and then compete with a body that’s alien to her.
Recently, Francine Niyonsaba, the silver medallist at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games in the 800m behind Semenya, revealed she would be affected by the DSD Regulation as well. While in 2015, India’s Dutee Chand, though fighting a different regulation at the time (IAAF’s hyperandrogenism rule), managed to get a positive verdict from the CAS. It eventually led to the scrapping of the hyperandrogenism regulation. Here too, testosterone values were the single yardstick.
There are, potentially, many others who will be directly affected by the new DSD rule; Athletes whose natural physiology have endowed them with a higher than normal testosterone level and the IAAF is trying to find a black and white answer to a question that is anything but.
Also Read | Asian Athletics: PU Chitra Lights Up Last Day With Gold as India Finish Fourth
Even as the IAAF tries to play the fairplay card in getting CAS to uphold the DSD Regulation, it is clear that the world governing body has been anything but fair towards a section of athletes. In fact, the DSD Regulation, if implemented, will prove to be a massive challenge across women’s sport, forcing a section to unnaturally modify their body and its chemistry to suit the yardstick provided by IAAF honchos led by Sebastian Coe, and his army of specialists.
The IAAF has faced criticism from across the world, including the United Nations Human Rights Council, which has termed the DSD Regulations “unnecessary, humiliating and harmful”, pointing fingers, no doubt, at the patriarchy involved in trying to contort women into a straightjacket Lord Coe seemingly brought straight out of the dark ages.
The IAAF’s reasoning that testosterone levels have a strong bearing on physical performance in athletes is backed by a host of studies and analysis conducted by the governing body. The results are quantitative but do not conclusively state that the hormone is what makes athletes fly. Semenya’s scientific team, as well as other sports scientists, have challenged this very conclusion.
For the record, one of the IAAF studies has based its case on the testosterone levels of 1,332 women and 795 men who competed at the 2011 and 2013 World Championships. They concluded that women averaged 0.67 nmol/L and the men 15.6 nmol/L.
Also Read | Coming Soon, a Golden Period in Indian Athletics
The numbers game of averages in IAAF’s case looks impressive but we are not talking about average women here. We are talking about athletes who are are not just above average, but considered among the most accomplished in history.
Based on the study, and apparently looking at other experiments and variables, the IAAF has set the cutoff at 5 nmol/L for athletes to compete in events between 400m and the mile. Well, the first shadow of doubt on IAAF’s intent comes from the thought that if testosterone is the culprit here, then why limit the scope of DSD regulation to 400, 800 and 1500 metre races?
The rule’s unmentioned corollary or implication is that if the DSD athletes fail to bring down their hormone levels to the prescribed amount, they can either compete with the men, or perhaps compete in the unlisted events (non elite competitions, of course), or just give up on their careers.
Amidst all the talk about chemistry, one should not also forget that testosterone is a male hormone and any rule involving its values should also concern men and will have a massive impact on transgender athletes who might, now, have an inroad into elite sport. The question now is will the reverse be possible. Will a male athlete be allowed/forced to compete with women if his testosterone values fall below a certain “prescribed” amount? Or will the male athlete be forced to alter his physiology — pump in some steroids even — to bring the levels up to what’s “man enough”.
Video | Rise of the Indian Runner: From La Ultra to Brazil 135
IAAF seems to take the sexist lane in the DSD rule, and understandably so. After all, women’s success in sport is always about fighting adversity and patriarchy and the Semenya vs IAAF case reeks of the same.
There are rumours now that if the CAS upholds Semenya’s appeal and asks IAAF to scrap the DSD regulation, the governing body might look at changing the way competitions are held — men’s and women’s events to be replaced by ‘A’ and ‘B’ segment competitions based on testosterone levels.
Now, that would be something, ain’t it? Let’s see how the predominantly male sporting establishment reacts. Either way, this is a legal battle that is unlikely to go away anytime soon.
Read more sports stories from Newsclick