Caster Semenya backed by South African government in legal battle against proposed testosterone limit
By PA Sport
Last Updated: 15/02/19 3:39pm
The South African government has thrown its weight behind Caster Semenya in her legal battle with world athletics governing body, the IAAF, declaring its proposed testosterone limit for women "a gross violation of human rights".
The double Olympic and three-time world 800 metres champion takes her fight against the IAAF to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) in Lausanne on Monday.
In a speech in Pretoria on Friday, sports minister Tokozile Xasa said the government had a "direct interest" in the case as South Africa's entire history had been a struggle for human rights, adding that the new rules would have a "negative impact on our golden girl".
Xasa said: "What's at stake here is far more than the right to participate in a sport.
"Women's bodies, their wellbeing, their ability to earn a livelihood, their very identity, their privacy and sense of safety and belonging in the world, are being questioned.
"This is a gross violation of internationally accepted standards of human rights law."
Xasa explained the government had set up a "high-level panel" of legal and medical experts to help Semenya, who is also being backed by the national athletics federation.
Declaring "the greatness of Caster Semenya", Xasa then announced the launch of a social media campaign called #NaturallySuperior to rally global support for the 28-year-old track star.
The background to this highly complicated row goes back decades but Semenya has found herself at the heart of the debate since 2009, when she burst onto the international scene at the world championships in Berlin.
Deeply embarrassed about how the then 18-year-old was subjected to worldwide scrutiny about her gender, the IAAF tried to find a more scientific basis to define who was eligible to compete as a woman.
The measure settled on was the amount of testosterone in an individual's blood, as for the vast majority of the population there is a clear distinction between male and female in this regard, with men possessing far higher levels of the muscle-building hormone than women.
With that in mind, the governing body introduced a limit of 10 nanomoles of testosterone per litre (nmol/L) of blood in 2011.
Unfortunately, human biology is not as binary as sports administrators would like it, and there are several genetic conditions, often referred to as differences or disorders of sexual development (DSD), which result in 'intersex' women with naturally-occurring high levels of testosterone.
Dutee Chand is one of these women and in 2015 the Indian sprinter persuaded CAS to suspend the new 'hyperandrogenism' rule for two years while the IAAF found more robust evidence to support its testosterone limit.
After the suspension was extended six months, the IAAF returned to CAS with what it claimed was statistical proof of testosterone's impact on certain events and, in 2018, an amended version of the 2011 rule was put forward.
That rule, which halved the testosterone limit to 5nmol/L but only applied to track events from 400 metres to a mile, was meant to be introduced last autumn but was delayed to March 26 of this year once it became clear Semenya was going to launch a new challenge at CAS.
On Thursday, Semenya's legal team issued a statement that said she is "unquestionably a woman" and is "fighting to run free".
It added: "Women with differences in sexual development have genetic variations that are no different than other genetic variations that are celebrated in sport.
"She asks that she be respected and treated as any other athlete. Her genetic gift should be celebrated, not discriminated against."
For its part, the IAAF has always denied it is questioning the right of Semenya, or any other intersex athlete, to compete as females, and says it is just trying to level the playing field.
"If a DSD athlete has testes and male levels of testosterone, they get the same increases in bone and muscle size and strength and increases in haemoglobin that a male gets when they go through puberty, which is what gives men such a performance advantage over women," it said in a statement earlier this week.
"To preserve fair competition in the female category, it is necessary to require DSD athletes to reduce their testosterone down to female levels before they compete at international level."
The stakes could scarcely be higher as the proposed rule states an athlete must be below the testosterone limit for six months, with it coming into force almost exactly six months before the start of the 2019 World Championships in Doha.