Caster Semenya ruling shows ‘total disregard for human dignity:’ Canadian sport minister

Cabinet minister Kirsty Duncan and South African runner Caster Semenya appear in file photos. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang and REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson

Canada’s sport and science minister was critical of an international decision that will force female athletes with unusually high levels of testosterone to medicate themselves to compete.

The Court of Arbitration for Sport denied an appeal by South African runner Caster Semenya on Wednesday.

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The world’s governing body of track and field can now impose limits on the testosterone naturally produced in the body of a female athlete, which opens the door for other sport bodies to do the same.

“I’m very disappointed in the ruling,” said Kirsty Duncan, Canada’s Minister of Science and Sport. “I think it shows a total disregard for human dignity.

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“I do not think a sport organization should be deciding who is a woman or what makes a woman. I don’t think any sport organization should be telling an athlete to alter their body chemistry.

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“We ask that our athletes do not take drugs. Now an athlete is being told her alter her natural body chemistry.”

The hormone testosterone increases muscle mass and strength. It is against the rules for athletes to inject or swallow testosterone supplements.

Women who have hyperandrogenism, also known as a difference of sex development (DSD), produce higher-than-usual levels of testosterone.

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The IAAF says DSD women have an unfair advantage and want them to medically control their testosterone for at least six months before competing.

So Semenya, a two-time Olympic champion in the 800 metres, must artificially lower hers to run in September’s world championship.

From access to financial compensation, sport has long been a battleground in gender politics.

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Science — genetics and the human body’s sexuality — has now made the question of what is fair in sport even thornier.

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A pair of Canadians have an emotional stake in the Semenya case for different reasons.

Toronto transgender cyclist Kristen Worley went to the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal to change practices and attitudes of the Canadian and world cycling bodies towards females with XY chromosomes.

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While her case was different from Semenya’s, Worley says where they intersect is the larger issue of those with power in sport maintaining control, and thus the sport’s economy, at the expense of human rights.

“What happened today had nothing to do with Caster, had nothing to do with testosterone because neither side of the aisle knew what they were talking about,” Worley told The Canadian Press.

“This isn’t about an athlete going through transition or somebody who has hyperandrogenism. This is about all athletes and ensuring the rights and protections of all athletes.

“The implications of this decision affects hundreds of athletes around the world.”

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Worley had hoped CAS would decide it didn’t have jurisdiction to rule on Semenya’s appeal, which could have opened the door for the case to go to a human rights or civil court.

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She says the International Olympic Committee didn’t want Ontario Human Rights to hear her particular case because it could usurp the jurisdiction of CAS for future cases.

“That’s why the civil piece was so important,” Worley said.

Melissa Bishop-Nriagu from Egansville, Ont., finished fourth at the 2016 Olympics behind Semenya, runner-up Francine Niyonsaba of Burundi and bronze-medallist Margaret Wambui of Kenya.

Niyonsaba recently confirmed she has hyperandrogenism. She called what the IAAF intends to do discriminatory saying “What am I? I’m created by God.”

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Bishop-Nriagu declined an interview request from The Canadian Press.

An Athletics Canada spokesperson said “she would prefer to focus on training, upcoming competitions and her family, therefore, will not be commenting publicly on the decision regarding Semenya’s appeal, the recent court decision and ruling as a whole.”

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Duncan, a former gymnast and now a marathoner, says success in high-performance sport is a combination genetic gifts and the hard work to overcome the gifts an athlete lacks.

“In some cases, it’s incredible lung capacity,” Duncan said. “In gymnastics, it’s strength and power and flexibility and you’ve got to have all of that.

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“Everyone comes with advantages and challenges. Why this one athlete and why this one indicator?”

The Semenya decision comes on the heels of a two-day Safe Sport Summit in Toronto, where athletes called for more independence and transparency to combat abuse in sport.

Duncan announced Wednesday that $2.6 million will be spend on a sport research hub for gender equity in sport.

“We’re committed to supporting our athletes so they can participate in sport at every level . . . free from abuse, discrimination, harassment,” Duncan said.

“There’s nothing more important than they’re safe and they’re healthy.”

— With files from The Associated Press

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