Fighting for an End to Sex Testing in Sports

Caster Semenya, a South African middle-distance runner and 2016 Olympic gold medalist, is challenging the International Association of Athletics Federation’s (IAAF) new rule forcing female athletes with higher natural testosterone levels to undergo medical testing. In a statement, Semenya called the rule “discriminatory, irrational [and] unjustifiable.”

In a collective statement released last month, more than a dozen feminist and LGBTQ rights organizations declared their support for Semenya in her challenge to the policy—including the Canadian Association for the Advancement of Women and Sport and Physical Activity, ChampionWomen, GLSEN, Global Justice Institute, Human Rights Campaign, International Working Group on Women and Sports, National Women’s Law Center, Tucker Center for Research on Women & Girls, WomenWin and the Women’s Sports Foundation.

“The IAAF ruling sets a dangerous precedent for the continued policing and scrutiny of women’s bodies that have tainted women’s sport for so long,” the groups wrote. “What is at stake here is far more than the right to participate in a sport. 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. We stand in solidarity with Caster Semenya and all female athletes whose human rights are compromised under the false pretense of ‘protecting’ women’s sports. We demand the IAAF rescind these discriminatory regulations and stand with female athletes globally in pursuit of an equitable and inclusive athletic experience.”

The new IAAF policy requires that the women forced to undergo such testing must show lowered testosterone levels for at least six months prior to November 1, when the ruling will come into force, before they are considered eligible to compete. Such a policy codifies the notion that women with higher natural testosterone have an unfair advantage over their peers—an assumption steeped in biological determinism that shames women who don’t have bodies that fall in line with an arbitrary marker of “normalcy.”

Semenya herself knows well how harmful these assumptions and practices can be—as they almost robbed her of a fair shot at competing in the Olympics in 2009. That year, the IAAF banned Semenya from competition after she won the 800-meter race at the Berlin World Championships in Athletics. Her competitors had leveraged her gender presentation in claims against her, declaring that she had an unfair advantage in the race—and eventually forcing her to undergo so-called sex testing to deem her “woman enough” to compete. In 2014, Dutee Chand, an 18-year-old Indian sprinter, was similarly prohibited from competing at the 2014 Commonwealth Games due to her higher natural levels of testosterone. Both cases exemplify the ways in which policies around testosterone levels for female athletes unfairly impact women of color and gender non-conforming women.

“It is not fair that I am told I must change,” Semenya declared in a statement. “It is not fair that people question who I am. I am Mokgadi Caster Semenya. I am a woman and I am fast.”


Carmiya Baskin is a former editorial intern at Ms. and a third-year Feminist Studies major at UC Santa Barbara. Her work has appeared in The Bottom Line, a student-run newspaper at UCSB, and EqualTalk, a feminist blog she co-founded through a women empowerment and teen leadership organization, Girls Give Back. She is passionate about all things related to intersectional feminism, Harry Potter and Disney, and she enjoys eating peanut butter right out of the jar while binge-watching The Office.