Olympian Caster Semenya and other women athletes with elevated testosterone levels are receiving new backing in their fight to compete. A coalition of renowned former athletes, sports scientists and doctors are calling on World Athletics to end its discriminatory policies.
The #LetHerRun campaign, which was launched recently out of San Paulo, Brazil, is taking on World Athletics for its new rule that women athletes with higher-than-usual testosterone levels must take hormone suppressants if they wish to compete. The decision impacts Semenya, who can now only defend her gold medal at the Tokyo Games if she takes medication to lower her hormone levels. Earlier this month, Semenya lost what is considered to be her final appeal against the ruling in Switzerland’s Federal Supreme Court.
“I am very disappointed,” Semenya told reporters, including the BBC. “I refuse to let World Athletics drug me or stop me from being who I am.”
The ruling also prevents two other women who won medals at the 2016 Summer Olympics from defending their crowns: Francine Niyonsaba from Burundi and Margaret Wambui from Kenya.
#LetHerRun produced a video illustrating the humiliation female athletes endured to compete in the 1960s, portraying a Spanish sprinter who has to strip nude in front of a panel of physicians, and then undergo an examination of her private areas to prove she’s female. The International Olympic Committee used to make female athletes walk naked in front of physicians — a mortification known as a “nude parade” — to verify the existence of female genitalia.
World Athletics’ ruling is a continuation of the IOC’s antiquated sexist policies, says former volleyball player Jackie Silva, who along with her partner, Sandra Pires, were the first Brazilian women gold medalists in the Olympic Games. “Why hasn’t the natural hormone production invalidated any male career ever?,” she said in the press release. “Has anyone stopped to compare Usain Bolt’s levels of testosterone to those of Justin Gatlin, for instance?”
Semenya’s legal battle with World Athletics started in 2018 when the governing body moved to restrict intersex athletes who have a disorder of sexual development, or DSD. Semenya has an elevated level of testosterone. The following year, World Athletics barred Semenya and other athletes with natural testosterone levels far above the standard range for women athletes, to compete in events between 400m and a mile, unless they take testosterone-reducing drugs. Semenya runs the 800 meter.
While officials admit the regulations are discriminatory, they say they’re necessary to preserve a “level playing field” in women’s events. World Athletics says intersex athletes with male testosterone levels possess an unfair advantage over other females.
But #LetHerRun is pushing back against that notion, arguing the exclusion of Semenya and other intersex athletes is downright discriminatory, since men aren’t forced to undergo the same inspection.
“The history of Olympic Sports is paved with big events of overcoming obstacles that inspire human improvement,” said Katia Rubio, teacher at the Physical Education and Sports School at University of Sao Paulo. “But the case of Caster is a betrayal of this heritage. It is a step back that belittles the Olympic dream of solidarity and inclusion. I hope we don’t see this mistake happening again in some decades from now.”