Like Caster Semenya, I have hyperandrogenism. The IAAF’s ruling will hurt millions of women like us

I’m not an elite runner. Nor are most with conditions related to heightened testosterone levels. But these decrees send a signal: We aren’t normal. We aren’t quite right. We need fixing

Marthe de Ferrer
Wednesday 01 May 2019 17:52 BST
Court of Arbitration for Sports secretary explains why appeal by Caster Semenya against testosterone rules failed

Today, like so many people around the world, I was incensed by the latest development in the legal battle between two-time Olympic champion Caster Semenya and athletics’ world governing body the IAAF.

In case you haven’t followed this case closely, the IAAF decided last year to introduce restrictions on how much testosterone women competing in specific distances could have in their body.

Anyone over the selected limit would be required to take hormones for at least six months prior to competition, in order to suppress their natural testosterone levels. Today the Court of Arbitration in Sport (CAS) ruled in the IAAF’s favour.

In short: Semenya now has to pump her body full of drugs in order to do her job.

This is outrageous for so many reasons, not least because it is so specifically targeting Semenya over other athletes with other biological advantages.

Michael Phelps was dubbed “a biomechanical freak of nature” as he stifled all his competition for over a decade with his disproportionate arm span and limited lactic acid production.

In comparison, Semenya – with 21 fewer Olympic golds than the US swimmer – spent much of the last 10 years having her identity scrutinised.

I would suggest that this is because Phelps fits with conventional notions of masculinity.

Semenya, however, isn’t stereotypically “feminine”, so has been on the receiving end of despicable treatment from fellow athletes and intrusive speculation from the media. There’s a lot to be said about how race, gender and sexuality have shaped the differences between how these two have been treated.

But there’s another angle to this situation which also deserves exploration. While it is inarguably an absolute personal tragedy for Semenya, this whole case has wider ramifications for millions of women around the world – women like me.

Like Semenya, I have hyperandrogenism – which is just a technical way of saying heightened testosterone levels.

Mine is related to polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), which manifests in infrequent periods, excess hair, and weight gain.

For many sufferers it can lead to infertility, type 2 diabetes, and heart disease among other equally unpleasant symptoms. And I’m not alone – in fact PCOS charity Verity estimates that this specific condition affects 20 per cent of women in the UK.

Today it was decided, by the IAAF and CAS, what does and does not constitute a woman. With their “female eligibility regulations” they drew a line as to who is allowed to consider themselves female.

I don’t know my exact testosterone level. I don’t know if I fall under the 5 nmol/L concentration the IAAF have deemed the acceptable benchmark for being female. But I do know that there’s now a rule which governs whether or not I am considered a woman.

Of course, I’m not an elite runner. Nor are the majority of people with PCOS and other conditions related to hyperandrogenism. But these decrees from major international organisations such as the IAAF send a signal to us. They tell us that we aren’t normal. We aren’t quite right. We need fixing.

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This seems yet another way to police women’s bodies – something the Women’s Sports Foundation highlighted in 2018 when the IAAF’s new regulations were first touted. In a statement, the foundation said: “Women’s bodies, their wellbeing, their ability to earn a livelihood, their very identity, their privacy and sense of safety and belonging in the world, are at imminent risk.”

And they are right – this extends beyond the world of athletics and sport, as the case amplifies existing tensions around gender and identity. As the women’s sports editor for The Telegraph, Anna Kessel, beautifully put it last year – the entire case is an example of “how science has been misapplied to uphold an ideology”.

I genuinely don’t think the IAAF intended their rules to have any impact on the world outside elite athletics. In fact, I believe these regulations are entirely focused on just one woman, in a calculating move to effectively end her career. Semenya herself has said as much, as the 28-year-old responded today that the IAAF “have always targeted me specifically”.

But in such a high-profile legal battle, the result of this cruel case will be felt by many more women than just its intended victim.

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