Documents Reveal New Details in Bitter Semenya-IAAF Battle

Caster Semenya was accused by the IAAF of intentionally running slowly at times to mask her alleged advantage.

Olympic Sports
4 min read
Caster Semenya had lost her appeal against new rules that force her to medicate to suppress her testosterone levels.

Caster Semenya was accused by the IAAF of intentionally running slowly at times to mask her alleged advantage from elevated natural testosterone, according to recently released court documents.

Semenya angrily denied the accusation.

The exchange was included in 163 pages of court records from the South African runner's appeal of the international track body's testosterone rules at the Court of Arbitration for Sport in February. They were released in redacted form four months after the hearing after both parties agreed.


In the documents, the two-time Olympic 800-meter champion also described her "atrocious and humiliating" treatment before and after her first world championships in 2009. Just 18 at the time, she was subjected to two intrusive "gender-verification" tests without her consent, she said.

A gynecologist said the IAAF then pushed for the young Semenya to have surgery to cut off her testosterone. The gynecologist pushed back against the IAAF. Semenya reluctantly agreed to take hormone-suppressing drugs.

Here are some more details from the court documents:

Semenya’s Story

In witness statements, Semenya described extensively for the first time her experiences around the worlds, her first major championships, in Berlin a decade ago.

She said South Africa's track federation sent a gynecologist to perform tests that included an examination of her genitals and taking blood samples without telling her what they were for. After she won the world 800 title, the IAAF conducted more tests on the then-teenager at a German hospital. It was "an order by the IAAF" and she was given no choice, Semenya said.

It didn't stop there. Semenya agreed in 2010 to take hormone-suppressing medication — oral contraceptive pills — but only after the IAAF said she could only continue competing if she medically reduced her natural testosterone. Semenya was put on medication the year before the IAAF first introduced highly contentious testosterone regulations. She was still a teenager.

Greta Dreyer, a South African gynecologist treating Semenya, testified the IAAF "made it clear" at the outset that its "preferred treatment" was surgery. Dreyer said she resisted and said if Semenya should undergo any treatment it should be hormone suppression. The IAAF denies that any athlete is forced to undergo surgery under its rules but surgery is one of the treatments the world body recommends alongside oral contraceptive pills and hormone-blocking injections.

The Treatment

Semenya took the oral contraceptives for five years from 2010-15 and said they caused a myriad of unwanted side effects: weight gain, fevers, a constant feeling of nausea and abdominal pain, all of which she experienced while running at the 2011 world championships and 2012 Olympics. A South African track team doctor said the medication also affected Semenya's mood and ability to train and she was "visibly depressed." The doctor, Philda de Jager, said the medication caused Semenya's metabolism to go "haywire" and she displayed symptoms of a menopausal woman.

During the treatment, Semenya said the IAAF also accused her of deliberately not taking the medication and manipulating her testosterone levels in the lead-up to major championships, something she also denied. She had to have two sets of blood tests every month and unannounced random blood tests over the five years. Her overall feeling, she said, was of being treated like a "lab rat" as the IAAF experimented with medically reducing athletes' testosterone.


"Biologically Male"

The IAAF waited until the closed-doors hearing at sport's highest court in Switzerland to argue Semenya and other athletes with certain "differences of sex development" (DSD) conditions were "biologically male." Now 28, Semenya was born with the typical male XY chromosome pattern and a condition that results in male and female biological characteristics and testosterone higher than the typical female range. She was legally identified as female at birth and has identified as female her whole life.

She called the IAAF's "biologically male" assertion "deeply hurtful."

Stephane Bermon, the head of the IAAF's medical and science department and chief architect of the testosterone regulations, testified. Under cross-examination by Semenya's lawyers, Bermon conceded he had made false statements. In one of his concessions, he acknowledged that not every athlete with a so-called 46 XY DSD condition who underwent testosterone-reducing treatment like Semenya returned to track.

At the court hearing, the IAAF produced research to show the unfair advantage it says elevated testosterone gives Semenya and other 46 XY DSD athletes over females with typical levels. Two of the three judges accepted the evidence — one found for Semenya — leading to the IAAF winning the case by a 2-1 majority of the panel.

Athlete Consent

Part of the IAAF's testosterone research came from a study Bermon led using more than 2,000 of the world's top athletes' blood samples taken at the 2011 world championships in Daegu, South Korea, and the 2013 worlds in Moscow. The samples were taken for anti-doping tests at the time and used years later by Bermon for a study to support rules regulating natural testosterone. The IAAF was asked to provide consent forms from the athletes that their medical samples could be used for the later study. The IAAF refused.

Reacting to allegations of unethical research, Bermon said athletes had consented to their samples being used for "anti-doping research" and the testosterone data was helpful for that. The fact that it "shed light" on other issues was irrelevant, Bermon said.

Future Testosterone Restrictions

Bermon revealed some of the thinking behind the IAAF's decision to apply the testosterone limits to some events — track races from 400 meters to one mile — and not to others, even when its own evidence indicated there were testosterone advantages in other events.

The IAAF explanation was simple: It targeted the events where 46 XY DSD athletes like Semenya were prominent. Bermon said other events would have testosterone limits applied to them if six to eight athletes with a 46 XY DSD competed in the event for three to five years.

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