CAPE TOWN, South Africa — Caster Semenya is going to the European Court of Human Rights to challenge “discriminatory” rules that prohibit her from competing in certain track events because of her high natural testosterone, her lawyers said Thursday.
The two-time Olympic champion in the 800 meters has already lost two legal appeals against World Athletics’ regulations that force her to medically lower her natural testosterone level if she wants to run in women’s races from 400 meters to one mile.
The South African’s lawyers said there’s been a “violation of her rights” and wants the human rights court to examine the rules.
Semenya has one of a number of conditions known as differences of sex development. Although she has never publicly released details of her condition, World Athletics has controversially referred to her as “biologically male” in previous legal proceedings, a description that angered Semenya.
Semenya has the typical male XY chromosome pattern and levels of testosterone that are much higher then the typical female range, World Athletics says. The track and field body says that gives her and other athletes like her an unfair advantage over other female runners.
The 30-year-old Semenya was legally identified as female at birth and has identified as female her whole life. She says her testosterone is merely a genetic gift.
The regulations have been fiercely criticized, mainly because of the “treatment” options World Athletics gives to allow affected athletes to compete. They have one of three options to lower their testosterone levels: Taking daily contraceptive pills, using hormone-blocking injections, or having surgery.
“The regulations require these women to undergo humiliating and invasive physical examinations followed by harmful and experimental medical procedures if they wish to compete internationally in women’s events between 400m and one mile, the exact range in which Ms. Semenya specializes,” Semenya’s lawyers said.
World Athletics, which was then known as the IAAF, announced in 2018 it would introduce the rules. Semenya challenged them and lost at the Court of Arbitration for Sport in 2019. She also lost a second appeal to the Swiss Federal Tribunal last year. That second case will be central to her appeal to the European Court of Human Rights.
“Caster asks the Court to find that Switzerland has failed in its positive obligations to protect her against the violation of her rights under the European Convention on Human Rights,” her lawyers said.
They said the track body’s rules were “discriminatory attempts to restrict the ability of certain women to participate in female athletics competitions.”
Because of her refusal to lower her natural testosterone, Semenya has been barred from running in the 800 since 2019, when she was the dominant runner in the world over two laps. She is currently not allowed to run her favorite race — the race she has won two Olympic golds and three world titles in — at any major event.
Semenya is not the only athlete affected. Two other Olympic medalists from Africa, Francine Niyonsaba of Burundi and Margaret Wambui of Kenya, have said they are also bound by the rules. They also said they would refuse to undergo medical intervention to reduce their testosterone levels.
“I hope the European court will put an end to the longstanding human rights violations by World Athletics against women athletes,” Semenya said in a statement. “All we ask is to be allowed to run free, for once and for all.”
Semenya, Niyonsaba and Wambui finished 1-2-3 in the 800 meters at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics, strengthening World Athletics’ argument that their medical conditions gave them an athletic advantage over other women.
It’s unclear if the human rights court would be able to hear Semenya’s case before the delayed Tokyo Olympics, which might be Semenya’s last. The games are set to open on July 23. Previous sports cases that have gone to the European Court of Human Rights have taken years to be decided.
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