Olympic gold medalist runner Caster Semenya must lower her testosterone levels if she wants to defend her 800 meter title in Tokyo next year, a Swiss court ruled Tuesday, bringing an end to Semenya’s long legal battle against her sport’s governing body that brought controversy and heated debate to the role hormones play in athletic performance.
Semenya, who hails from South Africa, identifies as female and was judged to be female at birth, but has naturally higher levels of testosterone and XY chromosomes due to being born with a sex development disorder.
Tuesday’s ruling by Switzerland’s supreme court dismissed Semenya’s appeal of a 2019 decision that ordered her—and athletes with similar hormonal conditions—to suppress testosterone levels in order to compete.
Testosterone levels can be lowered either through medication or surgery, according to the Associated Press.
The International Association for Athletics Federation, the governing body for running, maintains that athletes with “differences of sexual development,” and more specifically female athletes with higher levels of testosterone, have an advantage in some events due to additional muscle mass, more strength and the ability to take in more oxygen.
“I am very disappointed by this ruling, but refuse to let World Athletics drug me or stop me from being who I am,” Semenya said in a statement, adding, “I will continue to fight for the human rights of female athletes, both on the track and off the track, until we can all run free the way we were born.”
In its ruling, Switzerland’s supreme court said the country’s Court of Arbitration for Sport was allowed to “uphold the conditions of participation issued for female athletes” with differences in sexual development “in order to guarantee fair competition for certain running disciplines in female athletics.”
“This decision is a call to action–as a society, we cannot allow a sports federation to override the most fundamental of human rights,”said lawyer Dorothee Schramm, who led Semenya’s appeal, in a statement.
Athletics South Africa, the country’s governing body for running that backs Semenya. The group previously called the IAAF’s testosterone policy “discriminatory, unnecessary, unreliable and disproportionate.”
Semenya’s biology has been the subject of controversy since she burst onto the international running scene in 2009. Her victories at the time raised questions about her sex, leading the IAAF to perform a sex verification test on her. She was also forced to take medication to reduce her testosterone in order to continue competing. In 2011, the IAAF announced new rules that would tighten the upper limits of testosterone levels in female athletes. The rule was dropped in 2015 when Indian sprinter Dutee Chand convinced Switzerland’s Court of Arbitration for Sport that there wasn’t enough evidence to prove that elevated testosterone levels increased athletic performance. Then, in 2018, the IAAF announced the policy upheld in Tuesday’s court decision, which applies to runners in three events, and narrow enough for critics to say it was designed to target Semenya.
Transgender athletes have been keeping tabs on Semenya’s case. Similar arguments are made about transgender athletes having an advantage over biological women. Different governing organizations have different policies, as well. The NCAA, for example, allows transgender women to compete on women’s teams after completing a year of hormone suppression treatment. But for the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association, which oversees roller derby, “an individual who identifies as a trans woman, intersex woman, and/or gender expansive” can compete on women’s teams.