Caster Semenya is a fast female runner who has won many world championships. She won gold medals at the 2012 and 2016 Olympics. Now she’s been told she can’t compete unless she takes a medicine that could make her slower.
Testosterone is a special kind of chemical called a “hormone”, which is found naturally in both men and women. But men produce much more testosterone than women. Testosterone helps build and strengthen muscles, which is very important for athletes. Testosterone also has many other effects.
The IAAF (International Association of Athletics Federations) is the international group in charge of athletics, a sport which includes things like running and jumping. Last year, the IAAF made a rule saying women athletes with high levels of testosterone couldn’t compete in some events. The rule says that these women must take special medicine to lower their testosterone levels if they want to take part in contests.
People who support this rule say they want to protect athletics for women. One reason men and women have separate events is because it would be unfair for women to have to compete with men, who have much higher testosterone levels. Testosterone can give athletes an advantage. Women who have won championship and Olympic races have often had high testosterone levels.
Other people believe that Ms. Semenya is being targeted unfairly. Ms. Semenya is a black South African woman. IAAF says their rule isn’t about the color of Ms. Semenya’s skin or the country she is from.
The rule covers all women, but it seems clearly aimed at her. The new testosterone rule only covers the events that Ms. Semenya runs in – distances from 1/4 mile (400 meters) to a mile (1,600 meters).
Ms. Semenya took the IAAF ruling to a special court for sports decisions. On May 1, the court supported the IAAF’s decision.
In recent years, many athletes have been forced out of sports for “doping” – using chemicals that aren’t allowed in order to improve as athletes. In a way, the IAAF is telling Ms. Semenya to do the opposite – to take medicine to make her a worse athlete.
The issue comes at a time when ideas about gender are changing. In the past, gender has normally described whether someone was born as a male or a female. Now some people are challenging the idea that someone must be one or the other.
But Ms. Semenya is not using unnatural chemicals, and she is not a man who has become a woman. She is a woman who naturally has high levels of testosterone.
Ms. Semenya says that she won’t take medicine to lower her testosterone. Some groups, such as the World Medical Association (WMA) say that it’s not a good idea for people to change the natural level of chemicals in their bodies.
Normally, successful athletes are celebrated because they are special. It’s unusual that Ms. Semenya is being punished instead of celebrated for the things that make her special.