One of the world’s most successful female runners, Caster Semenya of South Africa, could be forced to begin competing against men if she refuses to lower her testosterone levels under new international rules.
The International Association of Athletics Federations unveiled the new rules on Thursday, announcing that they would take effect in November. But the announcement from the world governing body is unlikely to quell the controversy that has been swirling around the issue for the past decade, and a court challenge is expected.
The new testosterone rules have sparked outrage and anger in South Africa, where the 27-year-old Semenya is a national hero and the country’s most beloved female athlete.
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The ruling party, the African National Congress, issued a furious statement on Thursday, accusing the IAAF of introducing “grossly unfair” and “blatantly racist” regulations that will discriminate against Semenya.
The rules are an echo of South Africa’s old system of apartheid, the ANC said. “The racial undertones of this cannot go unnoticed. The regulations are a painful reminder of our past where an unjust government specifically legislated laws for certain activists in society to stifle their fight against an unjust system. The IAAF uses the same tactic to exclude those who have defined the past decade as champions and treasures of their home countries.”
A separate statement from the ANC women’s league said the new policy is a homophobic attempt to remove Semenya from athletics.
Semenya is a two-time Olympic champion in the 800 metres, an event she has dominated since 2009. She also competes in the 400 and 1,500 metres, winning a bronze medal in the 1,500 in the world championships last year and a gold in the same event at the Commonwealth Games this month.
Her naturally high testosterone levels have provoked criticism from some of her competitors and detractors, who have complained about her muscular appearance and deep voice. She was even forced to undergo gender tests in 2009, with undisclosed results.
The new rules will govern female runners in track events in distances from 400 metres to a mile. Women with high testosterone levels will be required to lower their levels with medication for six months before an event, and then maintain this lower level. If they fail to do this, they will have to switch to different events or compete against men or enter a new intersex classification.
The IAAF says the rules are intended for athletes who have a “Difference of Sexual Development” (DSD). The rules are not intended to question the “sex or gender identity of any athlete,” it says.
“The regulations exist solely to ensure fair and meaningful competition within the female classification, for the benefit of the broad class of female athletes,” the association said in a statement on Thursday.
The association’s president, Sebastian Coe, said the revised rules have nothing to do with cheating, and he emphasized that no athlete with a DSD has cheated. “They 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,” he said.
The IAAF says it has “evidence and data” showing that testosterone – regardless of whether it is artificially inserted into the body or naturally produced – provides “significant performance advantages in female athletes.”
Many experts, however, are questioning the IAAF’s rationale for the new regulations. The rules, for example, do not apply to events such as the hammer throw and the pole vault, where research has shown that testosterone is a major advantage. Yet, the new rules do apply to the 1,500 metres, where the evidence of a testosterone advantage is much less clear.
Semenya’s supporters are alleging that the new rules were crafted to apply precisely to her events, including the 1,500 metres, despite the lack of evidence to support it.
Ross Tucker, a South African expert in sports science, said he would be shocked if this allegation is true. But he agreed that the decision to include the 1,500 metres in the new rules is puzzling and creates the appearance of a “Semenya policy” by the IAAF.
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“It does really look as though this policy has been designed specifically to stop Caster Semenya from competing,” he said in a web broadcast on Thursday.
Semenya herself has said little about the new rules. In a tweet on Wednesday, as the news of the rules began to leak out, she said: “How beautiful it is to stay silent when someone expects you to be enraged.”