The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly and was the first step to formulating the International Bill of Human Rights. This monumental process affirmed the dignity and worth of a human being with the right to fundamental freedoms, no matter their race, religion, language, or gender.

Paris, France, 10 December 1948

In the stark daylight, South Africa’s first democratically elected president, Nelson Mandela, signs the Constitution into law. That summer’s day, bright and unyielding, was the perfect backdrop to South Africa’s official commitment to forever uphold human freedom and dignity.

Sharpeville, South Africa, 10 December 1996

Caster Semenya, double Olympic champion, wins the 800-metre race. This was two days after the Court of Arbitration for Sport ruled in the International Association Athletics Federation’s (IAAF’s) favour: women with supposedly high testosterone levels must take medication to lower such levels should they intend to compete in races over 400-metres and up to 1500-metres. In an interview after her spectacular win, Semenya said that she’d keep training and she’d keep running. “It doesn’t matter if something comes in front of me…I always find a way.”

But such is the muscle of the mighty IAAF that many lamented it could be Semenya’s last ever 800-metres on the international sporting stage.

Doha, Qatar, 3 May 2019

Semenya applied for the suspension of the Court of Arbitration for Sport’s ruling so that the IAAF refrains from implementing its regulations during the current appeal proceedings that Semenya and her legal team are pursuing. A temporary suspension was granted. The Swiss Supreme Court will be asked to set aside the ruling of the Court of Arbitration for Sport and for a new decision to be made in accordance with the Supreme Court’s considerations. This successful suspension is a critical step in advancing the fight for gender justice and human rights in the authoritarian and restrictive professional sporting world.

The realm of elite sports is replete with athletes possessing paranormal talent and genetic gifts. We most often revere them.

Lausanne, Switzerland, 3 June 2019

It was like a supernatural being had taken over the body of swimmer Michael Phelps as he took the gold in the 400-metre swimming medley. His “wingspan” like a blue crane sunning itself; his double-jointed ankles possessing magical kicking powers. Supposedly, Phelps produces less lactic acid – the stuff that causes fatigue – than any typical athlete. His genetic gems are celebrated. Phelps: the prized Olympian to go down in history.

Athens, Greece, 14 August 2004

Do these double standards suggest that human beings struggle with ambiguity and deep prejudice? The very nature of language is gendered: he and she; girl and boy; man and woman. The IAAF’s rules and the Court of Arbitration for Sports’ ruling are the symbols and the manifestations of a profoundly flawed system. But we must, in our fight for justice, continue to question the metanarrative and the violent structures that govern our language and our culture. We must continue to seek and advocate for nuance. We must see through Semenya’s eyes and the millions just like her. We must open ourselves to the plethora of possibilities of what it means to be a man, a woman, and a human being.

The suspension in favour of Semenya shows that the golden child of human rights and constitutionality, Switzerland, won’t tolerate the excessive limitations on Semenya’s freedom. The Court of Arbitration for Sport’s decision upholding IAAF’s regulations is contrary to fundamental human rights principles, such as the economic freedom to pursue a career, the right to freedom of a profession, the right to personality, the right to privacy, and the right to human dignity. The Court of Arbitration for Sport’s award forces athletes to submit to medically unnecessary treatment. This effectively ends the rights of women athletes to compete in their chosen profession freely or to access and exercise their chosen occupational activity without constraint. The rights of individuals to bodily integrity transcend the sporting field.

Switzerland’s highest court has been asked to find the curtailment of Semenya’s personal, medical and economic freedom as excessive, and to deem the IAAF regulations as unfairly discriminatory in that they infringe on personality rights. Sex-testing and other invasions of privacy are contrary to the inherent right to human dignity, so highly valued in all human rights charters. The IAAF’s regulations essentially constitute a serious violation of Swiss and international notions of gender discrimination.

Semenya’s and other women’s freedoms are under scrutiny. Human rights must trump the rights of a sporting body or any other field that seeks to limit the freedoms and bodily integrity of women.

This tale, in many ways, is about the journey of transformation in the conditions and processes that prevent marginalised groups from obtaining just and fair treatment and the realisation of their rights.

On this day – the start of the 2019 World Championships in Athletics, we look forward to watching Semenya stand tall again at the starting blocks of the 800-metre race. Her words resounding in her mind: “I am a woman. And I am a world-class athlete.”

Doha, Qatar, 27 September 2019

Author SJI

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