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TURNING POINT: The 2020 Tokyo Olympics, delayed by the coronavirus pandemic until 2021, provided an opening for important conversations about the pressures that athletes experience.
AFTER BEING DENIED A SPOT AT THE OLYMPICS, THE SOUTH AFRICAN GOLD MEDALIST IS FOCUSED ON MAINTAINING HER DIGNITY AND GETTING JUSTICE.
My dream was to defend my titles in the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games. I won gold in the women’s 800-meter competition in both 2012 and 2016. I wanted to compete again in the Olympics and get one step closer to my goal of becoming the greatest female 800-meter runner of all time. But I didn’t get to run in Tokyo. I am furious, sad and disappointed that I was denied the opportunity by a 2018 World Athletics ruling, based on a 2017 report that was recanted right after the Tokyo Games.
The 2018 ruling did not name me specifically, but I am the target. It said women naturally born with higher testosterone levels have an unfair competitive advantage over other female athletes. To be allowed to compete, I would have to take testosterone-reducing drugs. The news of the ruling shattered me. More than that, I felt indignant. As a woman, I should be in control of my own body. Why should I have to take hormone-altering substances just so I can compete in my chosen profession?
As the pinnacle of athletic achievement, the Olympics have pushed athletes to their physical and mental limits — often at tremendous personal costs. The world expects athletes to make sacrifices to earn gold. There is such immense pressure that some may look for ways to gain any unfair edge over the competition. I did not succumb to this pressure. I know who I am, and I’m not afraid to speak out about injustice — not only for myself, but so that other athletes don’t have to experience what happened to me.
Shortly after the Tokyo Games, the British Journal of Sports Medicine published a correction to the 2017 study that had persuaded World Athletics to ban me from competing. It said the findings about the effects that high testosterone levels in female athletes had on their performance levels were “exploratory” and “could have been misleading by implying a causal inference.” If the flaws in the study had been admitted before the Olympics, I could have been allowed to participate.
When I learned about the correction, my first words to my lawyers were, “I told you so.”
The courts are where I have to fight my battles now. Some of my lawyers have offered their services free of charge, but it has been a drain on my resources, and I will need support to continue the fight.
My first challenge against the World Athletics ruling came in June 2018, when I filed a request for appeal at the Court of Arbitration for Sport, known as CAS, based in Lausanne, Switzerland. The following April, CAS handed down its ruling: I lost.
I next brought my case to the Swiss Supreme Court, which has the authority to overturn CAS decisions. In September 2020, the court refused to change the decision; it ruled only that the CAS decision did not violate fundamental and widely recognized Swiss principles of public order.
My lawyers said we had one more card up our sleeve: challenge the Swiss ruling at the European Court of Human Rights. There the South African Human Rights Commission will support my stance as a concerned party. They submit that “no adaptation, negation, nor self-abnegation is necessary.” This means that the rules compelling me to take hormones to lower my natural testosterone levels and alter my natural state are an infringement on my human dignity. If we win at the European Court of Human Rights, this will further weaken the World Athletics case. I’m encouraged to think I will finally get a proper hearing. My lawyers say the case will probably be heard in Strasbourg, France, in 2022.
Despite missing Tokyo, my head remains high. I am a Black South African. I was lucky to be born with a special talent. But without ambition, perseverance and faith in yourself, you will get nowhere. The many setbacks I have experienced have made me stronger; setbacks are part of what it takes to become a great athlete. I have also had to endure insults and humiliations from a world that very publicly questioned my identity. I know about maintaining dignity and hope in the face of oppression. My goal now is to win my legal case. For me, as a woman, as a human fighting a cruel injustice, victory would be sweet, as sweet as any I have achieved on the track.
Caster Semenya, a South African 800-meter runner, is a two-time Olympic gold medalist and three-time world champion.