Real recognizes real, and greatness knows who it holds company with. It’s no surprise, then, that champion gymnast Simone Biles was among those offering full-throated support to South African track star Caster Semenya, who lost an appeal last week to be able to compete as she was born.
A Swiss high court ruled last Tuesday that Semenya could not compete in any races between 400 meters and a mile unless she underwent medical interventions to lower her testosterone levels. Semenya’s body naturally produces more testosterone than what has been considered “typical” for women.
With the ruling, Semenya is unable to compete in her signature event, the 800 meters, in which she has won Olympic gold twice.
“This is wrong on so many levels… once again men having control over women’s bodies,” Biles wrote in a tweet last Thursday. “I’m tired.”
this is wrong on so many levels..
once again men having control over womens bodies 🙄 I’m tired https://t.co/eodz4SBk8x
— Simone Biles (@Simone_Biles) September 10, 2020
The court’s decision, which upholds a 2019 ruling made by the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS), was roundly criticized, for leaning into a long history of scrutinizing and policing the bodies of Black female athletes.
It’s a practice that Biles is unfortunately familiar with. She has written about being fat-shamed as a young gymnast. A Vogue profile of the gymnast—widely acknowledged to be the greatest of all time—notes that Biles’ first international win was overshadowed by a racist allegation by an Italian gymnast, who told reporters that Biles’ race was an advantage.
“Next time we should paint our skin Black, so we could win, too,” Carlotta Ferlito told reporters.
As Biles told a fan at an event earlier this year, the scrutiny didn’t stop there.
“They focused on my hair. They focused on how big my legs were. But God made me this way, and I feel like if I didn’t have these legs or these calves, I wouldn’t be able to tumble as high as I can and have all of these moves named after me,” Biles said, according to Vogue.
It’s no wonder, then, that 23-year-old world champion would feel compassion for Semenya, who has been fighting back for years against allegations that she should not run in women’s events because her testosterone levels give her an unfair advantage.
As writer Claire Rudy Foster noted in a recent Allure article, Semenya’s white counterparts didn’t start questioning Semenya’s gender until she started winning the 800-meter race in international competitions. After her win at the 2009 World Championships, Mariya Savinova, a Russian who also ran in the race, speculated to Russian journalists that Semenya would fail a sex determination test.
“Just look at her,” Savinova told reporters at the time (as Foster reports, Savinova was caught doping eight years later).
For her part, Semenya has remained defiant in the aftermath of the ruling.
“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 released through her lawyers last week. For the last year, she has been training for the 200 meters, a race she can legally compete in without having to alter her genetic makeup through surgery or medication.
She followed that up with a tweet on Thursday, vowing to fight “for the human rights of female athletes, both on and off the track, until we can all run free the way we were born.”
— Caster Semenya (@caster800m) September 10, 2020