The South African government on Friday threw its weight behind Olympic 800m champion Caster Semenya ahead of next week’s landmark hearing on proposed rules that aim to restrict testosterone levels in female athletes.
The International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) has proposed rules that would force “hyperandrogenic” athletes or those with “differences of sexual development” to medically lower their testosterone levels below a prescribed amount.
Semenya is challenging the legality of the rules in a case that is to be heard from tomorrow at the Court of Arbitration in Lausanne, Switzerland.
Led by South African Minister of Sport and Recreation Tokozile Xasa, the government said that the rules were “discriminatory” as it launched a campaign in support of hyperandrogenic athletes.
“These regulations appear to be specifically targeting Caster Semenya,” Xasa told a news conference. “It’s a subtle racial incident that we are observing.”
“What’s at stake here is far more than the right to participate in a sport. Women’s bodies, their well-being, their ability to earn a livelihood, their very identity, their privacy and sense of safety and belonging in the world are being questioned,” she added. “This is a gross violation of internationally accepted standards of human rights law.”
The government launched a campaign dubbed #NaturallySuperior to drum up international support in a drive that Sport and Recreation South Africa Director-General Mokoditloa Moemi said was to fight the “unfair” IAAF regulations.
“She is being targeted because she is a woman. Had she been a man we doubt that that would be the case,” Meomi said.
“The world once declared apartheid as a crime against human rights. We once more call people of the world to stand with us as we fight what we believe is a gross violation of human rights,” Xasa said.
She called on individuals and organizations “intolerant of discrimination” to add their voices to a movement “that condemns these discriminatory IAAF regulations which in their nature seek to unfairly exclude other sections of society from competing in sport.”
The regulations could potentially deprive the world from seeing and experiencing the “natural superiority of future athletes” from Africa, she said.
The regulations were due to have been instituted in November last year, but have been put on ice pending next week’s hearings.
On Thursday, Semenya, 28, said she is “unquestionably a woman.”
In a statement, her lawyers said she is “a heroine and an inspiration to many around the world. She asks that she be respected and treated as any other athlete.”
“Her genetic gift should be celebrated, not discriminated against,” they added.
As well as Semenya, the silver and bronze medalists in the 800m at the Rio Olympics, Francine Niyonsaba of Burundi and Kenya’s Margaret Wambui, have also faced questions about their testosterone levels.
Xasa said that the proposal had the potential to hinder any “little girl growing up in an African village with dreams of becoming a top sportswoman.”
Athletics South Africa reaffirmed its “unqualified support” for Semenya and other athletes who might be affected by the IAAF decision.
Semenya has also received support from other sports. Cricket South Africa said it stands behind the “national icon” and denounced the regulations as “an act of discrimination against women in sport.”
“We state categorically and emphatically that women like Caster, who is born with intersex variations, should enjoy the same rights to dignity as all women,” Cricket South Africa chief executive Thabang Moroe said.
“This attempt at systematically ostracizing potential and talent should be condemned in the strongest terms. Together, let’s hit gender discrimination for six,” Moroe said.
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