In a landmark ruling, the European Court of Human Rights has sided in favor of Caster Semenya, a two-time Olympic 800m champion from South Africa, overturning regulations that mandated female athletes with naturally high testosterone levels to take medication in order to reduce them.
Justice for Semenya, hailed as one of the greatest middle-distance runners of her time, comes after a protracted legal battle against the contentious rules imposed by the World Atlethics. The regulation, which targeted athletes with “Differences of Sexual Development” (DSD), required these individuals to suppress their testosterone levels through medication for eligibility to compete in certain track events.
Semenya, who has been at the center of the debate on gender and athletic performance, asserted that these regulations were discriminatory and violated her basic human rights.
The European Court of Human Rights, based in Strasbourg, France, acknowledged Semenya’s arguments and concluded that the regulations indeed restricted her right to compete freely and without unjust interference. The court reasoned that such an obligation impinged upon the dignity and personal integrity of the athletes subjected to these requirements.
The European Rights Court said, the decision by the Switzerland-based CAS that rejected Semenya’s first appeal had not properly considered important factors such as the side effects of the hormone treatment, the difficulties for athletes to remain in compliance of the rules, and the lack of evidence that their high natural testosterone actually gave them an advantage.
Adding that, the Semenya’s second legal appeal against the rules at the Swiss Supreme Court should have led to “a thorough institutional and procedural review” of the rules, but that did not happen when that court also ruled against Semenya.
However in a statement, World Athletics insisted that it “remain of the view that the DSD regulations are a necessary, reasonable and proportionate means of protecting fair competition in the female category as the Court of Arbitration for Sport and Swiss Federal Tribunal both found, after a detailed and expert assessment of the evidence.”
Semenya’s case has ignited intense discussions on the determination of eligibility within female sporting competitions, highlighting the complex interplay between biology, gender identity, and fairness in sports.
Supporters argue that testosterone levels naturally occurring in some athletes should not be grounds for exclusion or forced medication, as it takes away from the essence of inclusivity and diversity within the sport.
Critics of the European Rights Court’s decision express concerns related to maintaining a level playing field, arguing that high testosterone levels provide some athletes with a potentially unfair advantage. Proponents of the regulations argue that testosterone, a hormone linked to increased muscle mass and stamina, can provide athletes with certain biological attributes that enhance their performance.
Despite the significance of this victory, it’s important to note that the ruling only applies to European Union member countries. Consequently, the World Athletics may still enforce its regulations at major international competitions, including the Olympics, where Semenya’s would still be forced to take medication to compete.
Semenya has vowed to continue her legal fight, advocating for equal rights and opportunities for female athletes worldwide.
This verdict marks a pivotal moment in the ongoing debate surrounding gender and eligibility in sports. The decision by the European Court of Human Rights could potentially spur further reassessment and modifications to international regulations, ensuring that they are founded on principles of fairness, inclusivity, and respect for an individual’s fundamental rights.
The government of Switzerland was ordered to pay Semenya 60,000 euros ($66,000) in respect of costs and expenses by the European rights court.
The 32-year-old Semenya is aiming to run at next year’s Olympics in Paris. She was the 2012 and 2016 Olympic champion in the 800 meters but did not defend her title at the Tokyo Olympics because of the regulations.