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CAS, Semenya, and the IAAF – exclusion at the highest level?

Copyrights: Citizen59

CAS, Semenya, and the IAAF – exclusion at the highest level?

The recent ruling by CAS allows the IAAF to implement a policy targeted to exclude Caster Semenya from competing, moving athletics backwards in a world striving for inclusion.

On 1 May the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) came to a ruling on the case involving the South African middle distance runner Caster Semenya and the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF). The IAAF implemented eligibility restrictions for athletes with differences of sex development (DSD Regulations) to compete in female events, but these were suspended while awaiting the outcome of this trial.

The restrictions would require DSD athletes to take a hormone suppressant treatment to reduce circulating testosterone to below 5nmol per litre of blood for at least 6 months prior to competition. Initially the IAAF were to implement this policy across all events, but later altered them to apply specifically to events from 400metres to 1mile – the distance Caster Semenya happens to excel in.

The alteration came following challenges predominately from Dutee Chand, an Indian 100m sprinter, who is now again allowed to compete thanks to the revision in the regulation. The CAS ruling dismissed Semenya’s challenge, allowing the IAAF to impose the restrictions on DSD athletes – well, on Semenya – competing with her current, natural circulating testosterone levels. The implications of the hormone suppressants on the health of the athletes is unknown. The IAAF claims that the prevalence of DSD athletes competing is approximately 0.71%.

What does this mean in terms of sport for development?

The sport for development field involves using sport as a means of enabling the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). SDG 5 is gender equality, SDG 10 is reduced inequality, and overall the SDGs have a strong focus on inclusive societies – facilitating and providing equal opportunities and equitable experiences for all. Given the global stage on which professional sports take place and their mass popular appeal, and particularly with the media attention on Semenya’s case, what kind of message does the ruling send?

In the CAS media release, the court acknowledged that the regulations are “discriminatory” but deemed them “necessary”. CAS and the IAAF claimed that it is to “level the playing field” for female athletes competing in those events, but this is dubious:

  • To date, the scientific community cannot come to a conclusion on whether or not high testosterone levels provides a significant competitive advantage. Studies conducted have suggested evidence for both sides of the discussion
  • One of the two existing large-scale studies, published in 2014, found that the most distinctive method of differentiating between males and females was measures of lean body mass (the weight of muscle, bone, and connective tissue in the body; excluding fat mass), and was not so much related to testosterone levels. They also found significant overlap between circulating testosterone levels between male and female athletes, concluding that the IAAF’s concerns around DSD athlete’s testosterone levels are unfounded
  • The 2015 CAS ruling in favour of Dutee Chand decided that the regulations for DSD athletes were discriminatory and there was insufficient evidence to support the regulations, which triggered the revisions by IAAF regarding which events the regulations apply to

Furthermore, no two people are exactly physically the same, and it can be said that every successful athlete has a physical advantage over others that contributes to their success:

  • Michael Phelps has a proportionally larger wingspan than the average person, giving him a greater pulling power in the water, and half the amount of circulating lactate, allowing him to have significantly shorter recovery times than his competitors
  • Eero Mäntyranta – the Finnish cross country skier and seven time Olympic medallist – had a genetic mutation giving him abnormally high levels of haemoglobin, allowing him to out-ski his competitors
  • Shaquille O’Neal stands at over 2 meters tall, giving him an obvious advantage over his opponents on the basketball court
  • Kenyan and Ethiopian runners have naturally long, lean legs, and have enhanced oxygen carrying capacities from living and training at altitude, contributing to their success on the track and road

All of these traits are naturally occurring, and without a doubt give these celebrated athletes a competitive advantage. For many sports, certain traits are even selected for, such as height in basketball players. So what is different about Semenya’s above-average, naturally occurring testosterone levels? The CAS ruling decides that creating a so-called equal playing field (for the majority) is more important than equality or fairness for all.

This is not the first time that individuals have been excluded from competing:

What kind of message is this sending about how the sporting world treats those whose bodies that differ from the “norm”? There is a risk that this becomes another example we look back on in years to come and condemn the treatment of athletes on the basis of their physical traits.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the International Platform on Sport and Development. We aim to create a space for discussion and debate. If you would like to share your views on this topic, please get in touch on info@sportanddev.org. 

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Wednesday, May 15, 2019 - 11:55