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A fair go is far from simple

As we head into a period of sporting world cups both here and across the world … the sometimes delicate topic of gender is up front and center once again.

This time the focus is on South African middle-distance athlete Caster Semenya.

I have written in the column about the many difficulties Laurel Hubbard faced when she represented New Zealand at the 2021 Tokyo Olympics. Her participation raised endless curly questions about physical advantages, and about fairness in competition.

Three years on, the struggles to find a credible balance between inclusiveness and integrity go on.

I’m also still waiting for comprehensive research about transgender athletes who have taken a lengthy break from their chosen sport to complete their transition and how that time away may have impacted said issues of physical advantage and fairness.

Semenya has been unable to compete since 2019, following the introduction of limits on testosterone levels for female athletes by World Athletics, which would have forced her to use medication to reduce her testosterone levels. However, the double Olympic champion has won again, this time in a human rights court appeal over the rules governing testosterone in female athletes. The European Court of Human Rights ruled the South African 800m gold medallist had been discriminated against.

What’s not in dispute is that Semenya has a medical condition known as hyperandrogenism, which is characterised by higher-than-usual levels of testosterone.

The decision could force world sport’s highest court to re-examine the regulations that forced Semenya and other female athletes to artificially reduce high testosterone levels in order to compete at top competitions such as the Olympics and world championships.

The court also ruled the runner was not allowed an “effective remedy” when the Court of Arbitration for Sport and Switzerland’s supreme court denied her two previous appeals against the rules.

The ruling, although significant, only opens the way for the Swiss supreme court to reconsider its decision. That might result in the case going back to the Court of Arbitration for Sport in Lausanne. Only then might the rules enforced by eminent track authority World Athletics be possibly removed. Sounds like a legal version of ping-pong.

For its part, World Athletics has employed a strong, brick wall-like defence and said it stood by its rules.

“We remain of the view that the DSD [differences in sex development] 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 has said the rules were discriminatory, and any efforts to reduce her testosterone levels made her feel “constantly sick”. I imagine the stress from worldwide attention has been a heavy burden as well.

The judgment does not bring into question the controversial DSD regulations as such, nor will it allow Semenya to return to the track and compete any time soon. Thus, this battle has been won by Semanya and others in a similar position; but the war has many more such battles ahead, it would seem.

Roger Parker
Roger Parker
Roger Parker is the Times-Age news director. In the Venn-diagram of his two great loves, news and sport, sports news is the sweet spot.

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