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Sports Arbitration Court To Decide Limits For Female Testosterone Levels


Caster Semenya is one of the best middle-distance runners in the world.


UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: And here she goes. Semenya is on her way once again in that rolling, buccaneering style - brilliant. Are we on for a world record here - 1:53:28. It's just outside. What a time.

MARTIN: Semenya is a woman who happens to have been born with high testosterone levels. That matters because the group that makes the rules about her sport, the International Association of Athletic Federations, says that gives her an unfair advantage on the track. Now, the South African athlete is fighting a rule that would force her to take medication to artificially reduce her testosterone levels. The case will be decided any day now. Gerald Imray is a sports reporter for The Associated Press in Johannesburg. He explained to me how this saga began.

GERALD IMRAY: To understand Caster Semenya's story, you have to go back to 2009 and the World Championships. Caster Semenya beat the world's best and beat them easily. I mean, it looked as if she wasn't really breaking a sweat. The track and field officials were suspicious immediately, and she underwent doping tests. And the real bombshell then was that they went to a gender verification test. They suspected that Caster Semenya may not be female. There is no doubt that Caster Semenya is a female, but what the IAAF was presented was with a female athlete who had testosterone levels that were in a male range. And that presented them with a huge problem because the IAAF argues that testosterone is a very, very clear indicator of performance.

MARTIN: But it's so complicated - right? - because why is mandating a change in their testosterone levels different than mandating that someone who is born with some kind of other physical feature that makes them really fast - how is that any different?

IMRAY: It's a false argument to say that Caster Semenya's testosterone levels, even though it's naturally occurring, is the same as Michael Phelps' long arms that makes him a great swimmer. We don't have rules in swimming that says if your arms are so long, you can't compete. But we do have rules in sports that separate male and female. The IAAF says that the one thing that gives men a huge advantage over women is testosterone.

MARTIN: How is this playing out in South Africa among fans, observers? I mean, what do they all make of this?

IMRAY: Caster Semenya is a huge hero in South Africa. There's a lot of resentment, anger in South Africa that the Western world - the IAAF is based in Europe - is trying to stop this talented, young woman from running. It's a case of your saying that our women aren't women enough for your Western ideals. There's an element of race in this debate. And in a sporting context, it's in many ways a game changer, you know?

MARTIN: Let's talk about the consequences. I mean, what happens if the rule is upheld?

IMRAY: If the rule is upheld, then you get the double Olympic champion and the best 800-meter runner in the world at the moment being forced to take medication for the rest of her career. It's that simple. If she wins the challenge, then she runs free, as they say. So a significant part of this debate falls on the women who don't have these high levels of testosterone. Some of them feel that these athletes with high levels of testosterone are unbeatable no matter how hard you train. Caster says it's discrimination. This is me. I'm running naturally. I've not done anything that you said I shouldn't do. And yet you still say that it's not good enough.

MARTIN: Gerald Imray - he covers sports, South African sports in particular, for The Associated Press. We reached him on the line from Johannesburg.

Thank you so much for talking with us.

IMRAY: Sure. Thank you very much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.