South African middle-distance runner Caster Semenya experienced another setback in her years-long struggle to compete on her terms—which is to say, to simply run without having to conform to restrictive, arbitrary and racist perceptions of what a woman’s body ought to be like.
On Tuesday, a Switzerland’s Federal Supreme Court dismissed her appeal of a prior ruling made by the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) in 2019, which would require her to take testosterone-reducing drugs in order to compete in races ranging from 400m to a mile, reports CNN.
This means it is unlikely the two-time Olympic gold medalist will be able to defend her title in her signature event, the 800-meter race, in the Tokyo Olympics next year.
“Chills my people, a man can change the rules but the very same man cannot rule my life,” Semenya wrote on Twitter following the ruling.
But the ruling doesn’t just rob Caster of her ability to compete. It reinforces restrictive notions of gender that have been defined, in large part, by racist pseudo-science. And not surprisingly, Black women athletes have seen themselves policed more strictly for not conforming to these norms.
Semenya’s naturally high testosterone levels (also referred to as hyperandrogenism) have been the subject of controversy and regulation in the past. For five years, the 29-year-old track star opted to take birth control in order to lower her testosterone levels but says she will no longer do so, citing the medication’s unwanted side effects, including making her injury-prone, reports the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC). Last year, World Athletics, the international governing body for track and field, introduced guidelines that would require Semenya and others like her to undergo medical interventions in order to compete, lowering their testosterone level through medication or surgery.
Semenya is the most high-profile athlete with hyperandrogenism, but she’s not the only one who has been handed the terrible choice of altering her body so she can compete. Indian sprinter Dutee Chand was able to run in the 2016 Olympics after challenging World Athletics’ (previously known as the IAAF) hormone testing for women athletes, saying the practice was discriminatory and ineffective. The CAS agreed with Chand, thus allowing her and Semenya to take part in the 800 meter event.
What changed? It appears to be nothing more than the fact that Semenya won, eliciting complaints from others, including her fellow women athletes, that allowing her to compete without hormonal interventions was unfair.
As Elizabeth Adetiba wrote for SB Nation, the disproportionate attention and policing of Semenya is rooted in medical bias, one that is very much influenced by race. Adetiba traces the history of how racist European medical experts derided African bodies as being inherently less “womanly” than those of their white counterparts. The influence of that pseudo-science ripples out into the present.
From SB Nation:
The idea that there are racial differences in testosterone and estrogen levels, particularly between black and white groups, is widely held yet highly controversial. The belief that black women are more masculine than just about every other race of women is rooted in the 17th and 18th centuries, and based on the notion that people of African descent are animalistic and aggressive.
The issue of biological advantage when it comes to athletic performance has long been a tenuous one—and one that seems to disproportionately focuses on Black athletes (just Google “Kenyan runners” and note the sheer volume of articles that come up).
But in Semenya’s case, this is a matter of her gender and her race subjecting her to outsize scrutiny. There are clear, measurable Black women across the diaspora have been punished for not conforming to white ideals of girlhood and womanhood, such as being perceived as less innocent and thus, more likely to warrant punishment and abuse in school and office settings. Black women who do not experience hyperandrogenism are already vilified and seen as less “womanly;” Semenya’s specific example may be less prevalent, but it is nonetheless rooted in and colored by this same racial bias. And, under the guise of “fairness,” it allows an entire sport the opportunity to punish Semenya for being herself: an exceptional, world-class runner.
As Adetiba further notes, other Black women have been affected by these same restrictions:
Burundian runner Francine Niyonsaba, one of Semenya’s competitors in the 800-meter run, has since revealed she is one of a growing number of female athletes, mostly from the Global South, whose hyperandrogenism puts them directly in the crosshairs of World Athletics’ regulations. Former top junior-athlete Annet Negesa, an intersex runner from Uganda, recently disclosed that she underwent invasive surgery at the behest of World Athletics doctors to ensure she could continue competing. Complications from the procedure left her damaged both mentally and physically.
Semenya will still be allowed to compete in races in which the distance measures less than 400 meters or more than a mile. Anticipating the discriminatory ruling, she started preparing this year to run in the 200, leaving open the possibility that she may yet compete in the 2021 Olympics. But what Semenya has vowed not to do is medically transform her body solely to meet the arbitrary standards set by a handful of judges.
“I am very disappointed by this ruling, but refuse to let World Athletics drug me or stop me from being who I am,” Semenya said in a statement released through her lawyers this week.
“Excluding female athletes or endangering our health solely because of our natural abilities puts World Athletics on the wrong side of history,” she continued. “I will continue to fight for the human rights of female athletes, both on the track and off the track, until we can all run free the way we were born. I know what is right and will do all I can to protect basic human rights, for young girls everywhere.”