Running for justice

One of the fundamental elements of a just society is that the rules apply equally to every individual. It is sad how seldom this really happens.

Olympic middle-distance runner Caster Semenya has appealed to the European Court of Human Rights to overturn World Athletics (formerly the International Association of Athletics Federations) rules banning her from competing in this year’s Olympics, which are due to run from 23 July to 8 August. Semenya is banned because of her status as an intersex cisgender woman who has naturally elevated testosterone levels.

The World Athletics ruling was condemned by the United Nations Human Rights Council in 2019 as contravening human rights, “including the right to equality and non-discrimination … and full respect for the dignity, bodily integrity and bodily autonomy of the person”. It has also been condemned by three global women’s sports organisations, and the World Medical Association has advised doctors not to administer World Athletics’ stipulated testosterone-lowering interventions, describing the regulations as “contrary to international medical ethics and human rights standards”.

Whether or not the European Court of Human Rights rules in time for Semenya to take to the track in Tokyo later this year – and her lawyers don’t expect that to happen – hers is a test case for other athletes with differences in sex development.

While it is true that testosterone boosts athletes’ physical performance, experts say athletic excellence is too complex to be attributed to hormones alone. Also, other women athletes with disorders resulting in higher-than-expected levels of testosterone, such as congenital adrenal hyperplasia, are not required to reduce their biological advantage. Neither are athletes of either gender who have other genetic differences that boost their performance excluded from competition, or ordered to take medications to reduce this natural advantage.

Semenya is a trailblazer. She has set records in women’s athletics, and is bravely choosing to challenge World Athletics regulations, despite the personal psychological cost that comes, inevitably, with so publicly drawing attention to oneself.

Semenya is just one example of the many women who have chosen to challenge the myriad ways in which their sisters are dismissed, held back and overlooked.

While we wish that it was not needed, we call on the global community to honour Caster Semenya, and all women who choose to challenge. Our world can only be the better for it.


Photo Credit: Martin Rickett/PA Images