In Depth

Caster Semenya case ‘threatens to destroy women’s sport’

The Olympic champion is appealing against new rules for ‘hyperandrogenic’ competitors

A legal battle by South African runner Caster Semenya to overturn proposed eligibility rules for hyperandrogenic athletes is threatening to “destroy women’s sport”, according to a top lawyer.

The International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) has suggested that hyperandrogenic athletes - those with “differences of sexual development” (DSD) - should have to medically lower their testosterone levels below a prescribed amount before being allowed to compete.

The track and field global governing body wants to introduce the rule changes in order to promote what it says will be fairer competition, arguing that current rules “could lead to athletes with differences of sexual development (DSD) and transgender athletes ‘dominating the podiums and prize money in sport’”, reports The Guardian.

But 800-metre Olympic champion Semenya - the most high-profile athlete who would be affected by the proposed rule change - is challenging the legality of the IAAF’s proposals in a case being heard at the Court of Arbitration (CAS) in the Swiss city of Lausanne this week.

Her lawyers say she is “unquestionably a woman” and as such, intends to fight for her right to compete internationally without “unnecessary medical intervention”.

That argument is being challenged by prominent sports lawyer Jonathan Taylor QC, who claims that if Semenya wins her case, the future of a wide range of women’s sports will be threatened.

“Without restriction, athletes with DSDs have set more than 100 records at national, continental and world level, the competition is not fair, the playing field is not level,” he told Sky News.

“If Caster wins her case the IAAF will have to let people compete in female categories based on their legal sex which these days can be a matter of choice,” Taylor continued.

“That means that you will have people with testes and high male levels of testosterone competing in the female categories and that will mean women with ovaries and low levels of testosterone have no chance of winning.”

Nevertheless, some commentators say such advantages and disadvantages are often simply the luck of the draw.

Women “who race against intersex athletes have every reason to feel that the competition is unfair”, but “equally, swimming against Michael Phelps - who genetics blessed with a freakishly-long torso - is also unfair”, says The Times’ Tom Whipple.

High-level sport “is full of people with a genetic advantage, and once you go down the route of correcting for the more extreme cases it is difficult to know where to stop”, he adds.

Semenya’s appeal case comes as tennis great Martina Navratilova faces widespread condemnation for saying that allowing transgender women to compete in women’s sport is “insane”.

“It’s insane and it’s cheating. I am happy to address a transgender woman in whatever form she prefers, but I would not be happy to compete against her. It would not be fair,” Navratilova wrote in an article for The Sunday Times.

Dr Rachel McKinnon, the first transgender woman to win a cycling track world title, posted several tweets hitting out at Navratilova’s “ignorant” remarks.

“Martina Navratilova is explicitly peddling a transphobic MYTH of the duplicitous cis man ‘faking’ being a trans woman in order to gain access to women-only spaces for nefarious purposes,” McKinnon said.

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