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Authors admit study used to justify banning Semenya & other women from Olympics was misleading

Caster Semenya
Semenya Caster runs the women's 800m in the 2016 Olympics Games.Photo: Shutterstock

World Athletics, the governing body of most track and field athletic events at the Olympics, has admitted that their controversial policy to ban female athletes from certain sports based on their natural testosterone levels has been, in part, based on a study now considered “misleading.”

The findings of the study, published in the British Journals of Sports Medicine, originally read “Female athletes with high [testosterone] levels have a significant competitive advantage over those with low [testosterone levels] in 400m, 400m hurdles, 800m, hammer throw, and pole vault.” They have since amended the study after the scientists behind it said the study was only “exploratory,” not in any way conclusive.

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“This statement should be amended to: ‘High [testosterone] levels in female athletes were associated with higher athletic performance over those with low [testosterone levels] in 400m, 400m hurdles, 800m, hammer throw, and pole vault,'” World Athletics scientists Stephane Bermon and Pierre-Yves Garnier said in a correction, which was quietly issued this week to the study as it was originally published in 2017.

“‘To be explicit, there is no confirmatory evidence for causality in the observed relationships reported. We acknowledge that our 2017 study was exploratory,” they explained. “With this in mind, we recognise that statements in the paper could have been misleading by implying a causal inference.”

Bans levied against Olympic medallists Caster Semenya, Francine Nyonsaba, and other female athletes, preventing them from participating in Olympic competitions — including the most recent Olympics in Tokyo — due to fears they had an “unfair” advantage, were based largely on the study’s supposed findings.

Many of the athletes have been deemed “intersex,” although most of them identify as cisgender women and were assigned female at birth. It’s unclear whether any of the women targeted by the ban identify as intersex.

Male athletes in track and field, and athletes in other sports, are not restricted by the rule.

Semenya endured a lengthy legal battle challenging World Athletics’ ban as trying “to change who she is and how she was born.” At every step, World Athletics rigorously defended their policy as “necessary.”

World Athletics even used one of their banned athletes as an example. After Christine Mboma won a silver medal in the 200-meter dash, one of the few events she was still allowed to compete in with her “too high” testosterone levels, World Athletics President Sebastian Coe claimed her win “vindicates” the organization’s restrictions. Mboma subsequently had her gender questioned in international media.

All the Olympians banned from competitions under what’s known as “the Semenya rule” have been Black cis women born in Africa.

In a statement following the news, Semenya’s lawyer Gregory Nott said to the Telegraph, “World Athletics have recently given notice of their wish to intervene in the European Court of Human Rights proceedings and we would hope that they will now support setting aside the regulations.

“It is more than surprising that World Athletics did not reveal this evidence before the recent Tokyo Olympics and allow Caster to defend her 800m title,” he added.

Semenya had taken such drugs from 2010 to 2015 in order to compete internationally, but she has refused to do so again. “The medication caused a myriad of unwanted side effects like weight gain, fevers, a constant feeling of nausea and abdominal pain,” the AP wrote.

Semenya won the 800-meter race at the 2012 and 2016 Olympic games, but she was not allowed to defend her title under the World Athletics rules installed in 2017.

In 2019, the Court of Arbitration for Sport upheld the actions taken by World Athletics, then known as the International Association of Athletics Federations, to issue a “limit” for permissible natural testosterone in female athletes.

Following a Swiss court’s refusal to overturn the rule, Semenya was formally unable to qualify for the 2020 Olympics.

“Excluding female athletes or endangering our health solely because of our natural abilities puts World Athletics on the wrong side of history,” she said following that loss.

She has previously said that the ongoing battle to compete has “destroyed” her “mentally and physically.”

In 2020, the United Nation’s Human Rights Council told countries to oppose athletic policies that pressure intersex athletes into undergoing “unnecessary” medical interventions such as drugs and surgeries meant to reduce hormone levels into a range matching competitors of a certain gender.

The council stated that athletic governing bodies should “review, revise, and revoke eligibility rules and regulations that have negative effects on athletes’ rights, including those addressing athletes with intersex variations.”

In February 2021, Semenya filed an appeal with the European Court of Human Rights. It has yet to be decided.

Although the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has allowed trans athletes to compete by rule since 2004, and the first openly transgender athletes competed at this year’s Olympics, most rules governing who qualifies in specific sports are decided by that sport’s appointed governing body.

“When we look at who is disqualified based on testosterone levels, it’s mostly been track athletes. The reason for that is because their governing body has actually a stricter a lower testosterone level that they allow than most of the other governing bodies and then the IOC. So that’s why you see it impact that sport more directly,” sports writer Britni de la Cretaz told LGBTQ Nation earlier this month.

What’s known as “the Semenya rule” was “designed for trans women, to kind of police who can be considered a woman and compete against women, but it has ensnared a lot of women and intersex athletes like Caster Semenya over the years as well,” de la Cretaz said.

“So I think that’s like the tip of the iceberg. There’s just like really a lot of issues with the Olympics and the way that they’re run.”

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