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Of Athletes, Bodies and Rules: Making Sense of 'Caster Semenya'

This article aims to systematically deconstruct four distinct narratives derived from the case of Mokgadi Caster Semenya et al. v. International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), a case decided by an arbitral panel of the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) in 2019 and on appeal, by the Swiss Supreme Federal Tribunal in 2020. In Semenya, Athletics South Africa (ASA) and the globally famous South African runner Caster Semenya claimed that the IAAF’s ‘Eligibility Regulations for the Female Classification (Athletes with Differences of Sex Development)’ unnecessarily, disproportionally and unreasonably discriminated against people with Differences of Sex Development by preventing them from competing in the female category unless they underwent testosterone-suppressing treatment. This article offers an original analysis of Semenya that looks at a set of narratives that the adjudicators used to make sense of the case. Particularly, we challenge that: (1) the case is about eligibility and not about sex/gender; (2) testosterone is a predictor of athletic performance; (3) the required testosterone-suppressing treatment is safe and harmless; and (4) the case is about protecting the integrity of the female category, beyond ethno-racial boundaries. Despite the adjudicators’ attempt to offer an objective, neutral and apologetic narrative, the way they made sense of Semenya’s excellent performance is stereotyped, gendered and stigmatizing. We conclude that the narratives presented in Semenya are inherently flawed and contradict the principle of fairness in sport.

(by Giovanna Gilleri)