Swiss court orders IAAF to suspend intersex athlete testosterone rules

There’s been another twist in the running court battle between the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) and intersex track and field athlete Caster Semenya of South Africa. The IAAF has been allowing her to compete in women’s track and field events, but only on the condition that she take hormone therapy to reduce her testosterone levels. She’s appealed the ruling and now the Swiss Supreme Court has taken her side and ordered the IAAF to suspend the rule regarding testosterone. So at least for the time being, she may be allowed to compete in upcoming international games with an additional advantage. (Associated Press)

Caster Semenya won an interim ruling in her battle against the IAAF when the Swiss supreme court ordered athletics’ governing body to suspend its testosterone rules on Monday, raising the prospect of her competing at the world championships without having to take hormone suppressing medication.

The ruling temporarily lifts the contentious rules, at least until the IAAF responds with arguments to the supreme court, known as the Swiss Federal Tribunal, to restore the regulations. The IAAF has until June 25 to do that.

Should the IAAF fail to overturn the ruling, the regulations will remain suspended until Semenya’s full appeal is heard by a panel of Swiss federal judges. That could take up to a year or more, meaning the 28-year-old South African might be cleared to run unrestricted in her favored event in remaining Diamond League meetings and the worlds in Doha, Qatar, in September and October.

How and why this case wound up in a Swiss court remains something of a mystery, considering that the IAAF is based in Monaco, but that’s a question for another day. The real issue here is whether or not the rule was appropriate in the first place and how it will affect women’s competitive sports. Semenya is something of a unique case because she’s not transgender. (That’s the other area where women’s sports is being seriously undermined.) Caster was born with both male and female chromosomal attributes but has elected to live her life as a woman.

Unfortunately, she still produces testosterone at significantly higher levels than her fully female competitors, but well below that of leading male athletes. The rule limiting testosterone levels for competitors born with medical conditions known as “differences of sex development” (DSD) was seen as something of a compromise. (I suppose that’s just a more clinical way of saying, intersex.) Caster still had levels above normal, but not as high as your typical “transgender woman” that’s done no such therapy. She argues that this is just the way she was born and should be allowed to compete unimpeded.

I remain on the fence on this one. The testosterone limiting rules seemed like a fair compromise to me, but what other options are there? Some have suggested having separate leagues and events specifically for transgender and intersex athletes, but that would probably limit the field considerably. It seems unfair to bar intersex competitors entirely because they had no control over their chromosomes at birth. But at the same time, is it really fair to the women to have to compete against someone with that much of an inherent advantage?

When we start heading down that road, I fear that the next demand will be for typical XX women to be able to start taking testosterone injections to keep up with the competitors like Caster. And that seems like a path that’s fraught with even more problems.