CAPE TOWN, South Africa (AP) — Caster Semenya’s lawyer said Tuesday they will take her case to the European Court of Human Rights in what’s likely to be a last-ditch legal challenge against regulations that require the South African and some other female athletes to artificially lower their natural testosterone levels to compete.
Greg Nott, who has represented Semenya for more than a decade, gave no timeframe for their challenge at the Strasbourg, France-based court, but it’s unlikely there would be a resolution before the Tokyo Olympics next summer.
Semenya, the two-time Olympic champion in the 800 meters, has twice lost legal appeals against World Athletics’ highly contentious testosterone limits, first at sport’s highest court in Switzerland in 2019 by a 2-1 majority of the judges, and then at the Swiss supreme court in September.
The rules require female athletes with conditions called differences of sex development that lead to high natural testosterone to lower it to below a specific level through birth control pills, hormone-blocking injections or surgery to be allowed to compete. The rules apply to track events with distances from 400 meters to the mile. Athletes must show their levels are below the threshold for at least six months before competing at top events like the Olympics, world championships, or Diamond League meets.
World Athletics argues the high testosterone gives Semenya and others an unfair advantage over athletes with testosterone in the typical female range.
The 29-year-old Semenya has refused to take medication to alter what she refers to as her natural gifts and hasn’t been allowed to compete in her favored two-lap race since June last year. She has said she will try to compete at next year’s Tokyo Olympics in the 200 meters, which doesn’t fall under the rules, but it’s uncertain if she will be able to qualify in a race she has little experience in.
Nott’s statement said there had been “growing support” for Semenya’s cause “from institutions and bodies across the globe.” He said all of Africa’s human rights commissions had now expressed support for Semenya following a previous announcement by the UN Human Rights Council backing Semenya last year.
“We remain hopeful that World Athletics will see the error it has made and reverse the prohibitive rules,” Nott said.
While Semenya says she is being discriminated against, the issue is perhaps one of the most complex faced by professional sports and has developed into a bitter legal battle.
World Athletics said in the Court of Arbitration for Sport hearing in 2019 that Semenya had XY chromosomes, the typical male pattern, and was one of a number of “biologically male athletes with female gender identities.” The track federation said the testosterone reduction was a form of compromise to allow her to continue competing against female athletes.
Semenya’s camp was outraged by the claim that she was biologically male, and she said she was insulted at the track federation “telling me that I am not a woman.” She was legally identified as female at birth and has identified as female her entire life.
Semenya is not the only athlete affected by the rules. Two other African runners, Francine Niyonsaba of Burundi and Margaret Wambui of Kenya, have said they are also affected and World Athletics says there are others but won’t name them because of medical confidentiality. Niyonsaba claimed silver behind Semenya at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics and Wambui won bronze in that race.