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Caster Semenya case about much more than just her running track

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GENEVA — Caster Semenya’s running future could be decided starting next week. But it will be about much more than her. The landmark case will likely challenge science and gender politics.

The two-time Olympic 800-meter champion seeks to overturn eligibility rules for hyperandrogenic athletes proposed by track and field’s governing body. The IAAF wants to require women with naturally elevated testosterone to lower their levels by medication before being allowed to compete in world-class races from 400 meters to one mile.

“She looks forward to responding to the IAAF at the upcoming hearing,” Semenya’s lawyers in Johannesburg, Norton Rose Fulbright, said Thursday in a statement. “She asks that she be respected and treated as any other athlete: Her genetic gift should be celebrated, not discriminated against.”

A scheduled five-day appeal case starting Monday is among the longest ever heard by the Court of Arbitration for Sport. The verdict could also be among the most ethically controversial in the sports court’s 35-year history. That should come in March.

The panel of three CAS judges could decide based only on science: Can the IAAF prove women with Differences of Sexual Development (DSD) get a significant performance advantage from male levels of testosterone.

The IAAF insists no woman is being reclassified as male, and it “makes no judgment about gender or sexual identity.”

″(The rules) are about levelling the playing field to ensure fair and meaningful competition in the sport of athletics where success is determined by talent, dedication and hard work rather than other contributing factors,” IAAF president Sebastian Coe said last year.

Still, Semenya’s case has been championed by United Nations human rights experts and women’s sport activists , led by Billie Jean King, who see potential abuse and discrimination in the track federation’s proposal.

As for the science, lawyers for Semenya will call expert witnesses from the United States and her native South Africa to discredit the IAAF’s research. The evidence could help deliver a second loss for the IAAF at CAS on an issue that has flared for a decade and cast a shadow on Semenya’s career.

In 2009, the 18-year-old prodigy won her first world championship title in the 800 meters, finishing in 1 minute, 55.45 seconds to become the third fastest woman this century. Hours before the race in Berlin, it emerged that the IAAF had asked for Semenya to undergo a gender verification test.

The IAAF introduced Hyperandrogenism Regulations in 2011 to replace the gender policy with guidance limiting women to serum levels of natural testosterone below 10 nanomoles per liter of blood. Semenya then finished second in the 800 at the 2012 London Olympics in 1:57.23, but was later upgraded to gold after the original winner was disqualified for doping.

The IAAF’s regulations were later blocked by Indian sprinter Dutee Chand, who won a CAS verdict in 2015 . Three judges, including Canadian professor Richard McLaren, said the IAAF did not prove hyperandrogenic women gained a significant advantage, and invited the governing body to submit new evidence.

While the rules were suspended, Semenya won a second Olympic title at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Games in 1:55.28 — more than four seconds faster than her best times in the previous two seasons.

The IAAF published its research in a British medical journal in 2017, using data from athletes at the 2011 and 2013 world championships.

It claimed 7.1 in every 1,000 elite female athletes had elevated testosterone levels, 140 times higher than the general population. This helped give a supposed performance advantage of 1.8 to 4.5 percent in events from 400 to 1,500 meters.

The proposed solution was requiring women to medicate — likely with contraceptive pills — to bring testosterone levels below 5 nmol/L for at least six months before competing at elite events such as the Olympics, world championships or Diamond League meets.

“No athlete will be forced to undergo surgery,” said IAAF medical adviser Stephane Bermon, who co-wrote the research.

CAS is hoping for a verdict in Semenya’s appeal by March 26 — six months and two days before the 2019 world championships begin in Doha, Qatar.

“The IAAF remains very confident of the legal, scientific, and ethical bases for the regulations, and therefore fully expects the Court of Arbitration for Sport to reject these challenges,” the governing body has said.

However, the integrity of the IAAF research has been challenged in a paper by three academics : Roger Pielke in the United States, Erik Boye in Norway and Ross Tucker in South Africa.

They claimed errors in the data included duplicate times for the same athlete, counting times for athletes later disqualified for doping, and “phantom” performances with no athlete recording that specific time.

“The unwillingness of the IAAF to correct or acknowledge errors highlights its conflict of interest,” wrote the authors, saying it was “uncommon and unadvisable that IAAF sees its role as serving as both the regulatory body and the primary producer of evidence justifying its own proposed regulations.”

Semenya’s lawyers previously said the IAAF’s rules are “irrational, unjustifiable” and violate the Olympic Charter and the laws of Monaco, where the governing body is based.

She is expected to attend some of the appeal sessions in Lausanne, Switzerland.

Victory next month would leave the defending champion favored to win a fourth 800 world title in Qatar.

A defeat in court would give Semenya options including leaving behind middle-distance events to focus on the 5,000, or start a six-month course of medication. That would mean skipping the entire Diamond League season to be eligible for the 800 at the world championships.

Caster Semenya talks 800m world record, goals, meeting LeBron James

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As Caster Semenya appealed a planned rule change that could impact her dramatically, she put together one of the fastest middle-distance seasons in track and field history.

In an interview last week, the scrutinized Olympic 800m champion from South Africa declined to discuss her in-process legal challenge to an IAAF rule that would force female runners in her events with high testosterone to reduce those levels starting next season.

“I’ve been advised to stick in my lane,” Semenya said before receiving the Wilma Rudolph Courage Award at the Billie Jean King-founded Women’s Sport Foundation’s annual salute in New York City. “I cannot say anything about it.”

The IAAF expects a hearing in Semenya’s case in February with a verdict by March 26.

In 2009, when Semenya won the world 800m title by nearly 2.5 seconds at age 18, word leaked that track officials mandated she undergo sex testing. The IAAF had gender-verification testing in place until 2011, when it was replaced with a test for abnormally high levels of natural testosterone.

In July 2015, the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) suspended the IAAF’s regulation, ruling that it lacked sufficient scientific backing and was therefore unjustifiably discriminatory. CAS is also handling Semenya’s appeal to the current proposed rule change.

Semenya has never spoken publicly in detail about her situation. It has never been publicly verified that Semenya’s body naturally produces abnormally high levels of testosterone or that she ever took hormone suppressants.

What’s clear is that Semenya is looking forward to competing next season.

This past spring and summer, she clocked the three fastest times of her life in each of the 400m, the 800m and the 1500m (breaking 1:55 for the first time).

Semenya is now the fourth-fastest woman in history in her primary event, the 800m, and .97 of a second slower than the questioned world record set by Czech Jarmila Kratochvílová in 1983.

It’s hard for Semenya to gauge her chances of closing in on the longest-standing record in the sport (assuming her legal challenge holds up).

“But if you are a half-second or a second away from a world record, then you think, OK, there are things that I’m doing right,” she said. “The most important thing is being consistent. When you run 1:55, 1:54 consistent, it shows that you can do better than that.

“Also when you run 400 meters under 50 [seconds], then you can run [the 1500 meters] under four minutes, it shows you still have more in the tank.”

Semenya broke those time barriers for the first time this spring and summer. She finished the season ranked No. 1 in the world in the 800m, No. 4 in the 400m and No. 9 in the 1500m, rare versatility.

She said she would rather win a fourth world title at 800m next year than break the world record. The 400m is also very much in her plans.

“If we can run almost 49 low next year … then we’ll know we’re ready to do anything at 800 meters,” she said. The only women to break 49.5 since the Rio Olympics are Rio gold medalist Shaunae Miller-Uibo of the Bahamas and world silver medalist Salwa Eid Naser of Bahrain.

World records clearly are important to Semenya.

She said her favorite race was not at an Olympics or world championships, but a 600m in Berlin in August 2017. She took nearly a second off the fastest time ever in the event, which is not on the Olympic program and thus is listed as a “world best” rather than a record.

Semenya returned to Berlin, also site of that eye-popping 2009 World title, for another highlight last month. She ran the world’s fastest 1000m in 22 years and met LeBron James.

“He just told me, keep on doing what I’m doing,” Semenya said. “He inspires me. I inspire him. It was just more for exchanging words when greatness meets greatness.”

NBC Sports’ Seth Rubinroit and NBC Olympic Research contributed to this report.

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IAAF delays testosterone rule change after Caster Semenya challenge

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The IAAF delayed implementing a rule limiting women’s testosterone levels from Nov. 1 until March due to a legal appeal from Olympic 800m champion Caster Semenya and South Africa’s track and field federation.

The IAAF expects a hearing in Semenya’s case in February with a verdict by March 26.

“The IAAF remains very confident of the legal, scientific and ethical bases for the regulations, and therefore fully expects the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) to reject these challenges,” the IAAF said in a press release. “However, the IAAF also understands that all affected athletes need certainty on the point as soon as possible. Therefore, in exchange for Ms. Semenya and [Athletics South Africa] agreeing to an expedited timetable, the IAAF has agreed not to enforce the regulations against any athlete unless and until they are upheld in the CAS award.”

The proposed rule calls for female runners with high testosterone to reduce those levels to be allowed in international races between 400m and the mile.

Semenya, who underwent gender testing in 2009 and is expected to be affected by the rule, said in June it is “discriminatory, irrational, unjustifiable,” in her first public comments since it was announced April 26.

“I am very upset that I have been pushed into the public spotlight again. I don’t like talking about this new rule,” Semenya said in a June press release. “I just want to run naturally, the way I was born.”

IAAF president Seb Coe said the rule was “about leveling the playing field to ensure fair and meaningful competition.”

The IAAF had gender-verification testing in place until 2011, when it was replaced with a test for abnormally high levels of natural testosterone.

In July 2015, CAS suspended the IAAF’s regulation, ruling that it lacked sufficient scientific backing and was therefore unjustifiably discriminatory.

The gender-testing issue was raised in 2009, when Semenya won the world 800m title by nearly 2.5 seconds at age 18. Word leaked that track officials mandated she undergo sex testing.

Semenya was not cleared to run for 11 months and came back to earn silver at the 2011 Worlds and 2012 Olympics, while the testosterone-limiting rule was in effect, behind Russian Maria Savinova, who has since been stripped of her golds for doping.

Semenya then had a lull in performance after the London Games while the testosterone-limiting rule was still in effect. After CAS suspended the rule in 2015, Semenya peaked again in 2016, going undefeated in 800m races, twice breaking the national record and comfortably winning Olympic gold. She has won 29 straight 800m finals dating to 2015, according to Tilastopaja.org.

Semenya has never spoken publicly in detail about her situation. It has never been publicly verified that Semenya’s body naturally produces abnormally high levels of testosterone or that she ever took hormone suppressants.

Semenya is receiving the Wilma Rudolph Courage Award at the Women’s Sport Foundation’s (WSF) annual salute in New York City on Wednesday.

“Despite public pressure and scrutiny, Semenya has embraced this advocacy role with dignity and courage,” according to a WSF statement. “The Women’s Sports Foundation unequivocally supports Semenya in her challenge to a discriminatory rule that if passed, will place women’s bodies, their well-being, livelihood, identity and privacy at imminent risk.

“It is the position of the Women’s Sports Foundation that eligibility standards for women’s sports that require female athletes to demonstrate particular hormone levels perpetuate the historical discrimination that has been prevalent in women’s sports for decades. We are confident that, when presented with the facts, the Court of Arbitration for Sport will uphold the human rights of all athletes.”

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