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Olympian Caster Semenya wins discriminatory testosterone limit appeal

Renowned South African Olympic champion runner Caster Semenya won Tuesday European Court of Human Rights appeal over ‘discriminatory’ testosterone limit.

Johannesburg – Renowned South African Olympic champion runner Caster Semenya has won European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) appeal to end “discriminatory” testosterone limits imposed on female athletes.

Semenya is hyperandrogenous, which means she has naturally high levels of testosterone, and has been fighting the 2019 ruling by World Athletics, formerly International Association of Athletics Federations, requiring her to take medical treatment to reduce her natural body’s hormones to be able to take part in international competitions in the female category. 

Semenya won gold medals in the women’s 800m at both the 2012 and 2016 Olympic Games in London and Rio de Janeiro respectively, and is also a three-time world champion.

Having refused to undergo the treatment, she was unable to defend her 2021 Tokyo Olympics 800m crown because of the rule changes; under World Athletics’ current rules, Semenya and other female athletes with Differences in Sexual Development (DSD) – here’s a guide on what it means to have DSD and IAAF rules governing DSD athlete  – are not allowed to compete in events from 400m to a mile (1,609m) without taking testosterone-reducing medication.

This saw Semenya file her first appeal to the Swiss Federal Tribunal to overturn the 2019 ruling, but she unfortunately lost it. She also lost her second attempt made to Switzerland’s Federal Supreme Court in 2020, but that didn’t deter her either as she vowed to continue to “fight for the rights of all female athletes”.

Fast-forward July 2023, in the matter of Semenya vs Switzerland, the ECHR on Tuesday said there had been a “violation of the prohibition of discrimination taken together with the right to respect for private life as well as a violation of the right to an effective remedy.”

The court found that the applicant had not been afforded sufficient institutional and procedural safeguards to allow her to have her complaints examined effectively. It also declared that the domestic remedies available to the applicant could not be considered effective in the circumstances of the present case.

The South African Human Rights Commission (Commission), which filed its submission as a third-party intervener before the ECHR in the matter, said it “welcome the findings”, adding: “This is the first time for the Commission to be involved in human rights litigation in an international forum.

“Its engagement thus marks a significant milestone in its work regarding gender equality.”

In response to the ruling, the Department of Sport, Arts and Culture Minister Zizi Kodwa said he welcomes the decision by ECHR, stating that the landmark decision further reinforces the call for the protection of women’s rights in sport.

“As a two-time Olympic champion and three-time World champion, Caster Semenya has repeatedly displayed excellence and dignity on and off the athletics track.

“Caster has done so throughout her career whilst being subjected to offensive treatment, which has led to her being prevented from competing in her favoured events.”

“While the fight to have Caster racing in her favoured athletics events continues, the ruling by the court is a clear statement at how Caster has faced discrimination in her fight against the offensive regulations she has been subjected to.”

Kodwa added: “I have repeatedly stated that women’s rights are human rights. As the South African government, we will continue to support Caster and Athletics South Africa (ASA) in the fight for the dignity of women athletes, and for Caster’s right to race again in her favoured event.”

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