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Caster Semenya Loses Landmark Case Against IAAF, Must Lower Testosterone to Compete vs. Women

Caster Semenya will not be able to compete against women at certain events without taking testosterone suppressants.

The Court of Arbitration for Sport ruled against two-time Olympic gold medalist Caster Semenya in her attempt to block new regulations to limit testosterone levels for athletes with a difference in sex development. As a result of the ruling, she will have to take medication to reduce her testosterone levels if she wants to compete against other women at the international level.

The CAS—an independent organization that helps settle disputes through arbitration—ruled Wednesday to throw out Semenya's challenge against the International Association of Athletics Federation, track and field's governing body, by saying they had "serious concerns as to the future practical application." No athlete will be forced to start taking medication but under the new rules, athletes with differences of sexual development will have to undergo a blood test on May 8 to monitor their eligibility for the IAAF World Championships in September or 2020 Olympics in Tokyo.

Athletes with differences in sexual development will have to keep their testosterone levels under 5 nanomoles per liter. In the IAAF's case, they noted that elite female athletes tend to have natural testosterone levels of approximately .12 to 1.79 nanomoles per liter. If an athlete with naturally higher levels of testosterone opts not to take medication, they will have to race against men or compete in a division against intersex athletes—if that is presented as an option.

"On the basis of the evidence submitted by the parties, such discrimination is a necessary, reasonable and proportionate means of achieving the IAAF's aim of preserving the integrity of female athletics in the Restricted Events," CAS said in its ruling.

The IAAF policy will come into effect on May 8 and will impact athletes competing in track events from 400 meters to the mile. Burundian Olympic 800 meter medalist Francine Niyonsaba recently opened up about her natural testosterone condition. She is listed on the starting list for Friday's Doha Diamond League meet and can compete without having to decrease her testosterone levels under 5 nanomoles per liter. Semenya would need to start undergoing treatment soon if she hopes to defend her world championship title in December.

Semenya, 28, responded to the news of the ruling with an image in a tweet that read, "Sometimes it's better to react with no reaction."

Semenya's lawyers issued the following statement: “I know that the IAAF’s regulations have always targeted me specifically. For a decade the IAAF has tried to slow me down, but this has actually made me stronger. The decision of the CAS will not hold me back. I will once again rise above and continue to inspire young women and athletes in South Africa and around the world.”

The decision by CAS on Wednesday marked a change since 2015 when it informed the IAAF that not enough evidence of performance advantage was presented to back their claims against athletes with naturally high levels of testosterone. That case centered on Indian sprinter and Olympian Dutee Chand, who competes in the 100 meters and 200 meters.

The IAAF revamped its case with more search and then published a study in the British Journal of Medicine in 2017 that concluded women with naturally high levels of testosterone saw a competitive advantage anywhere from 1.78% to 4.53% in the 400 meters, 400-meter hurdles, 800 meters, hammer throw and pole vault. The IAAF presented its new rules in April 2018.

The independent study by the IAAF was heavily criticized by Semenya's supporters and a paper by the University of Colorado Center for Sports Governance director Roger Pielke Jr., University of Oslo molecular biology professor Erik Boye and University of Cape Town exercise physiologist Ross Tucker. They wrote that they, "found problematic data throughout the study and consequently, the conclusions can’t be seen as reliable."

Semenya and her legal team decided to challenge the rules in court by arguing "her genetic gift should be celebrated, not discriminated against." They also railed against the IAAF's requirement of hormone medication as ethically wrong while also presenting a possible health risk.

Chand will be unaffected by the new ruling. Tucker estimates that Semenya will be about seven seconds slower if she has to lower her testosterone levels. Semenya competed and won the 5,000 meters at the South African national championships over the weekend in 16:05.07 at altitude. While her major career achievements have come at the 800 and 1,500 meters, she could compete in the 5,000 meters without having to take medication. She would need to run 15:10.00 or faster to qualify for the event at the 2020 Summer Games.

The IAAF was at the center of a scandal in 2009 when it was reported that Semenya was subjected to sex verification testing after winning gold at the IAAF World Championships.

By 2011, the IAAF put a limit on testosterone levels in female athletes where those with a ratio of 10 nanomoles per liter or higher were only eligible to compete against women if they underwent an operation or took hormones to reduce their testosterone level. When the IAAF limit was in place, Semenya's times slowed but after the rule's hiatus following the Chand decision by CAS,  she has returned to dominance in the women's 800 meters. She won a silver medal at the 2011 IAAF World Championships and 2012 Olympics behind Russia's Maria Savinova, who has been stripped of the gold medal due to doping. Semenya won gold in the same event at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro and has lowered her personal best to 1:54.60 in 2018, which has her knocking on the door of Jarmila Kratochvílová's 1:53.28 world record. Semenya has not lost an 800-meter race since Sept. 6, 2015. Several of Semenya's competitors voiced concern about racing in unfair conditions that are out of their control.

“I just want to run naturally, the way I was born,” Semenya said last summer. “It is not fair that I am told I must change. It is not fair that people question who I am.”