Caster Semenya poses as spokesperson for hyperandrogenic athletes before the European Court of Human Rights

Deprived of competition due to a particularly high testosterone level, South African Caster Semenya, 33, pleaded her case on Wednesday May 15 before the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), hoping to “open the way” to other hyperandrogenic athletes, so that they are not “dehumanized and discriminated against

Caster Semenya poses as spokesperson for hyperandrogenic athletes before the European Court of Human Rights

Deprived of competition due to a particularly high testosterone level, South African Caster Semenya, 33, pleaded her case on Wednesday May 15 before the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), hoping to “open the way” to other hyperandrogenic athletes, so that they are not “dehumanized and discriminated against.” The Court's decision, expected within a few months, will be "very important", said Caster Semenya after the hearing, which ended at noon.

The South African had to choose between "safeguarding her personal integrity and dignity while being excluded from competition" or "undergoing harmful, unnecessary and supposedly corrective treatment", said her lawyer, Schona Jolly. The latter repeated during the hearing that “Miss Semenya is a woman. At birth, she was assigned the gender of female, legally and de facto.”

Double Olympic champion (2012, 2016) and triple world champion (2009, 2011 and 2017) in the 800m, Caster Semenya naturally produces a lot of male hormones (androgens), which are likely to increase muscle mass and improve performances. Since 2018, World Athletics, the international athletics federation, has required hyperandrogenic athletes to lower their testosterone levels through hormonal treatment in order to be able to participate in international competitions in the women's category. What Caster Semenya refuses, thus prevented from running her favorite distance.

“Insurmountable Advantage”

Revealed to the general public at the 2009 World Championships in Berlin, Caster Semenya won the gold medal in the 800 meters, but her physical appearance and deep voice had sparked debate and speculation. The athlete was then banned from competition for eleven months and forced to undergo medical tests, the results of which remained secret, before finally being allowed to run again in July 2010.

But in 2018, World Athletics regulations changed that. This was validated the following year by the Court of Arbitration for Sport (based in Switzerland), then confirmed by the Federal Court of Lausanne, which highlighted, in 2020, “the fairness of competitions” as a “principle cardinal of sport”, on the grounds that testosterone levels comparable to those of men give female athletes “an insurmountable advantage”.

The South African athlete's appeals against these two decisions were rejected in 2019 and 2020, but she won her case before the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) on July 11, 2023. The ECHR had found that Semenya had been the victim of discrimination and a violation of her privacy. However, the Swiss authorities, supported by World Athletics, referred the matter to the Grand Chamber of the ECHR, a sort of appeal body.

“Career years” lost

Caster Semenya’s lawyer also stressed that her client had “lost years of career”. The Court's decision, which will be final, "will have a profound impact on her personal and professional life, as well as on the lives and dignity of many other international sportswomen", added Me Jolly.

“It’s not about my career, but about standing up for what’s right, about raising the voice of those who can’t fight for themselves,” said Caster Semenya, who hasn’t run since March 2023. Another hyperandrogenic athlete, Burundian Francine Niyonsaba, 31, attended the hearing. If the judgment rendered by the ECHR in the summer of 2023 constituted a first victory for Caster Semenya, it does not invalidate the World Athletics regulations, which have even tightened since its regulations concerning hyperandrogenic athletes. They must now maintain their testosterone level below the threshold of 2.5 nanomoles per liter for 24 months (instead of 5 nanomoles for six months) to compete in the women's category, whatever the distance.

This long legal drama has an enormous financial cost for Caster Semenya, who launched an appeal for donations in February.