Olympic champion Caster Semenya is not alone in her fight to compete like every other woman athlete, “to run naturally, the way I was born,” she said. This is a race she’s running alongside an international pack of powerful people, as well as everyday folks who want to see her win.
Thousands of fans around the world have signed a petition in support of her claim against the IAAF, and flooded the internet with messages of love and admiration. A bevy of experts have offered testimony against the proposed rule that requires hormone suppression for Semenya and other women with higher than typical levels of testosterone. And her backers now include a former Olympian, one of the greatest tennis players that ever lived, and even South Africa’s president.
And unsurprisingly, there are also those speaking out in hopes she fails.
In a statement released by her attorneys this week, Semenya told the Court for Arbitration for Sport: “The IAAF’s regulations do not empower anyone. Rather, they represent yet another flawed and hurtful attempt to police the sex of female athletes.” As Jezebel reported, they argue it’s just another way to police women’s bodies.
The controversial change in the IAAF rules, known as the Eligibility Regulations for Female Classification, would compel Semenya and other athletes with differences of sex development to undergo hormone treatment for six months to suppress their naturally elevated testosterone levels, in order to compete in the 400m up to one mile races and combined events over the same distances.
Semenya won the 800 metre gold medals at both the 2012 and 2016 Olympics, and also won her third world title in London two years ago.
The proposed change has been called everything from “sexist” to “necessary for a level playing field for women.”
The First Choice Foundation created an online petition in her name, titled #HandsOffCaster, that now has more than 15,000 signatures in support of Semenya:
“I urge you to sign this petition so we can save athletes like Caster from undergoing such unpleasant procedures especially when questioning matters beyond their control.
“How do we question her genes? Did she choose to be who she is? Certainly not, let us support our sister.
“If Caster was not a champion, would this be an issue if she lost in competitions? Definitely not, let’s help stop this IAAF ruling and support our athletes.” — First Choice Foundation petition
On Thursday Semenya was accompanied by South Africa’s Sports Minister Tokozile Xasa at her week-long hearing before the CAS in Switzerland. That followed a tweet of support by South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, who referred to Semenya by her first name:
“Mokgadi. Champion. Beacon of hope. My daughter. This is only to remind you of your greatness; because you constantly remind us that nothing beats the enduring power of the human spirit,” he tweeted. ”You may run alone on the track, but know now that you run with 57 million & more.” His tweet also featured the hashtag #NaturallySuperior.
Tennis legend Billie Jean King, who famously fought her own battles as a player and lesbian in a sport dominated by men, joined President Ramaphosa as well as scores of famous athletes and organizations in tweeting their support:
But not every elite athlete is in Semenya’s corner: world marathon record-holder Paula Radcliffe tweeted that the effects of elevated testosterone on performance “can’t be ignored:”
She added in another tweet, “The biggest issue is that this is not about one person. Caster has become the figurehead but if this was a one off genetic difference we wouldn’t be in the situation we are today. The future could be women with normal testosterone levels never making a world final.”
A follower asked Radcliffe if she agreed with Martina Navratilova who has come out against transgender inclusion in sports. She tweeted a reply that made it clear where she stood: with Navratilova and against trans athletes.
“Transgender is different and I understand Navratilova’s point. If you are born and grow up male you cannot be allowed to compete in female sports simply because you ‘identify’ as female. It makes a mockery of the definitions of male and female sports categories.” — Paula Radcliffe
An anti-Caster tweet by British media personality drew negative reactions, headlines and was reported to Twitter. Katie Hopkins tweeted a photograph of Caster arriving at the CAS in Switzerland holding up two fingers, a “V for Victory” symbol, and turned it into the latest example of rampant transphobia in the U.K.
Caster is not transgender. She is cisgender and reportedly is hyperandrogenous, a condition in which cisgender women have elevated testosterone levels. This controversy has dogged her athletics career ever since she won the world 800m title as an 18-year-old in 2009.
In Caster’s corner is U.S. former 400m Olympian hurler Ed Moses. “The sporting side has had its head in the ground for quite a few years,” Moses told CNN.
“The most important thing is fairness to the athletes,” he said. “I’ve spoken to a few women who were distance runners and they gave me a point of view that I was surprised at and that was mainly fairness to Caster before everything else and that she not be castigated because of her situation, which she has nothing to do with. They were interested in her as an individual, so that was heartening to me.”
The hearing continues through Friday. A verdict is expected on March 29.