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intersex news



By Nefale Lornah


23 July 2017, South Africa

800 Metre South African Gold Medalist, Mokgadi Caster Semenya, could be forced to undergo Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT) or surgery in order to save her career. The South African middle distance runner was the winner of the gold medal in the women’s 800 metre event at the 2016 Summer Olympics and has won numerous other 800 metre races throughout her professional career. However, she has faced immense stigmatisation in her career.


After her success led to accusations of foul play by some, Semenya underwent rigorous and reportedly invasive testing which revealed her intersex identity to the world. She and a number of other athletes at the time were made to lower their testosterone level to continue competing, until 2015 when a court of arbitration suspended the rule that enforced limit on female athletes naturally occurring testosterone levels.  


The International Association of Athletics (IAAF) was given two years to respond to that decision and this month they produced what they consider the most conclusive evidence to date, showing that female athletes with very high levels naturally occurring testosterone receive significant performance enhancing benefits in competition. 


A study into athletes with raised testosterone was published on 4 July 2017, which has renewed the debate, questioning whether intersex athlete should be banned from competing at the world championships in London in August this year. Researchers measured blood testosterone levels in 1,332 female athletes and the IAAF claims that those with the highest levels of testosterone such as intersex and hyperandrogenous women demonstrated significant advantages over those with lowest levels.


The IAAF has stated that it intends to use this study to defend its decision to make the demand that Semenya undergo HRT. There has been outrage expressed by gender activist groups, calling for a change in the IAAF’s athlete categorisations and rules in order to make room for athletes such as Semenya, rather than punish her and other intersex athletes for their natural bodies and hormone levels.


Will this mean that Semenya has to negotiate her way to competing with other women by lowering her testosterone levels? Given the natural diversity of the human race, who gets to decide what hormone level is ‘fair’ for Semenya or any other woman athlete? And if the South African athlete continues to win races despite this decision, will the authorities of the IAAF find new metrics by which to stigmatise her?


The International Association of Athletics appears to be punishing a black, intersex athlete for her success. The actions it has taken are a clear violation of Semenya’s human rights and dignity and demonstrates a double standard rarely enforced upon sportsmen or white women who excel.


Clearly, the sporting federation is using research to monitor the bodies of women athletes, brandishing science as a tool for discrimination rather than progress. There seems little concern regarding the impact of their decisions on the athletes who will be affected, in terms not just of their careers, but their emotional wellbeing too.











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