Why the Semenya ruling is a blatantly, brutally personal attack on her
Basic human rights have now been rendered as secondary to athletic ambitions. In 2019, this is unacceptable
Levelling the playing field. Easy to say, fiendishly difficult to achieve. That much was evident from reading the summary of a Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) decision that tried, in the space of four closely typed pages, to strike a blow for universal justice, but instead ended up collapsing under the weight of its internal contradictions.
The court’s verdict, mandating that Caster Semenya has to take a testosterone suppressant if she wants to continue competing as a woman, claims to uphold the sanctity of women’s sport. In reality, though, it is targeted specifically at Semenya herself.
How else to explain the CAS’s confinement of the rule changes solely to the women’s 400m, 800m and 1,500m, the only events in which Semenya competes? Are we supposed to believe that the “material androgenising effect” – the expression chosen to describe the impact of her heightened testosterone level – ceases to apply at 5,000m, which she is still technically free to enter?
It is extraordinary how a debate of such complexity has somehow been reduced to an exclusively middle-distance issue. The legal minds of Lausanne knew what was at stake, and tried to fashion a cut-and-dried solution. All they have created is an inelegant, ethically troubling fudge.
The killer phrase comes in the very first paragraph. CAS notes the “discrimination” against Semenya by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) and goes on to call it a “necessary, reasonable and proportionate means of achieving the legitimate objective of ensuring fair competition in female athletics in certain events”. One wonders how lawyers could have come up with such phrasing. Discrimination is never tolerable, and for the CAS to ratify it is inexcusable.
The court admits it has concerns about how the IAAF will implement the rules. So long as a policy of discrimination is applied solely to Semenya, it appears to be fine about it. Within a week, Semenya will need to start reducing her testosterone if she hopes to line up at the World Championships in Doha this September. It is problematic enough that a young woman is being asked to mute her innate biology to gain acceptance. But has anybody considered the physical trauma of Semenya bombarding herself with testosterone suppressants, or the psychological toll of being forced to mute the person she grew up as?For as long as Semenya has been on the scene, one argument has been that athletes disadvantaged by her dominance are the victims. That logic has been turned on its head this week. “It is not possible to give effect to one set of rights without restricting the other set of rights,” the CAS says. And yet this is precisely what it has done. By forcing Semenya down the road of changing who she is, it is giving preference to athletes who do not have to follow that grim path.But leaving aside the scientific and legal conundrums, often the most vexed element of this desperately sad saga has been one of language; Semenya has been shunned in some quarters as a freak, a cheat. She has been portrayed as a saboteur, exploiting a weakness in the system to achieve ill-gotten glories over 800m and 1,500m. She has, at worst, been paraded, dehumanised in the manner of an unusual exhibit at a museum. And now, courtesy of the CAS, that process reaches its conclusion with Semenya fated to be remembered less as an Olympic champion than as a tragic pariah.We live in an age, supposedly, where we recognise that biological separations are not always neat and tidy. And yet in 2019 somebody is being compelled to change her body chemistry to conform to a strictly binary model of gender, one where her own designation as “intersex” leaves her a misfit, a problem of which athletics would rather wash its hands.
Neither the CAS nor IAAF appear quite to fathom the maelstrom they have just unleashed. Basic human rights have now been rendered as secondary to athletic ambitions. That sets a truly alarming precedent, and one that goes far beyond the CAS raison d’etre as a place of sporting arbitration. At least it did have the decency to note that the one constant had been the dignity and co-operation of Semenya herself.
One cannot help but hope that in Doha she delivers the gold that would represent the most eloquent rebuke to her appalling treatment.
– © Telegraph Media Group Limited (2019)