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Caster Semenya intends to challenge track’s controversial testosterone rule

Caster Semenya celebrates after winning gold in the 800 meters at the Gold Coast Commonwealth Games in April. (Saeed Khan/AFP/Getty Images)

For Caster Semenya, the controversial two-time Olympic champion, the matter is really quite simple. “I am a woman and I am fast,” she said.

The 27-year old South African runner plans to issue a formal legal challenge Monday to make sure the track and field world views her the same way, arguing a new rule aimed at restricting testosterone levels in female athletes is unfair and unnecessary.

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

The sport’s governing body, the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), announced a rule in April that will put a cap on permissible testosterone levels for runners competing at certain distances. The rule will go into effect in November and could have an impact on Semenya, one of the sport’s most dominant middle-distance runners.

Semenya, who won gold in the 800-meter race at the past two Olympics, is believed to have an intersex condition that causes her body to naturally produce testosterone at levels much higher than most women, and many in the track world attribute her blazing fast times to this biological advantage.

“Ms. Semenya, like all athletes, is entitled to compete the way she was born without being obliged to alter her body by any medical means,” her legal team at Norton Rose Fulbright said in a statement.

The IAAF says the heightened testosterone levels could be a result of a Difference of Sexual Development (DSD) and suggests they could improve performance by 5 percent or more. The organization says it instituted the rule to ensure a level playing field.

“The latest research we have undertaken, and data we have compiled, show that there is a performance advantage in female athletes with DSD over the track distances covered by this rule,” Dr. Stephane Bermon, who works with IAAF’s medical and science department, said after the rule went into effect.

Semenya’s lawyers called the rule “discriminatory, irrational, unjustifiable.” The rule will impact runners competing in 400-, 800-, 1,500-meter and one-mile events (as well as hurdles at those distances). With the rule in place, Semenya would have limited options. She could take medications that might lower her testosterone levels, start competing at longer distances, race against men or choose to bypass elite international competitions like the Olympics and the world championships.

“I am very upset that I have been pushed into the public spotlight again,” she said in a statement. “I don’t like talking about this new rule.”

According to a statement, Semenya is concerned the rule forces “women with no prior health complaints to undergo medical interventions to lower their testosterone levels in the absence of support by the available science,” and she’s upset the IAAF rules continue “the offensive practice of intrusive surveillance and judging of women’s bodies which has historically haunted women’s sports.”

Semenya’s intention to challenge the rule was first reported by the New York Times. A spokesperson for the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) said Monday morning that Semenya’s appeal had not yet been received and couldn’t comment on the matter.

“This is a landmark case concerning international human rights and discrimination against women athletes with major consequences for gender rights which are jealously protected by the South African Bill of Rights,” Gregory Nott, Semenya’s lawyer, said in a statement.

The IAAF and the CAS have wrestled with the issue the past several years. The court suspended an IAAF rule in June 2015, temporarily eliminating any ceilings on acceptable testosterone levels but giving the IAAF an opportunity to seek out further scientific evidence. The IAAF commissioned a study before announcing the new regulations in April.

“Our evidence and data show that testosterone, either naturally produced or artificially inserted into the body, provides significant performance advantages in female athletes,” IAAF President Sebastian Coe said in announcing the new rule. “The revised rules are not about cheating, no athlete with a DSD has cheated, they are about leveling the playing field to ensure fair and meaningful competition in the sport of athletics where success is determined by talent, dedication and hard work rather than other contributing factors.”

While Semenya has served as the face of the controversy, others will likely be impacted. According to the IAAF, more than a decade’s worth of research has found that 7.1 in every 1,000 elite female athletes have elevated testosterone levels, which the organization says is 140 times higher than the general female population.

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