Martina Navratilova has come to the defence of Olympic 800 metres 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 so-called "hyperandrogenic" athletes or those with "differences of sexual development" (DSD) to medically lower their testosterone levels below a prescribed amount. Track and field's global governing body wants to introduce the rule changes in order to promote what it says will be fairer competition between all female athletes. But South Africa middle-distance star Semenya, the most high-profile athlete who would be affected by such an alteration to the rule book, is challenging the legality of the IAAF's proposals in a case which will be heard at the Court of Arbitration (CAS) in Lausanne.
Significantly, the change would only apply to female athletes competing in distances from 400 metres to a mile -- a point highlighted by 18-time Grand Slam singles champion Navratilova in a column in Britain's Sunday Times newspaper.
"Leaving out sprints and longer distances seems to me to be a clear case of discrimination by targeting Semenya," Navratilova wrote. "And can it be right to order athletes to take medication? What if the long-term effects proved harmful? Semenya's case will come up tomorrow before the Court of Arbitration for Sport. It is expected to last a week and the outcome is expected by March 29. I hope she wins."
Semenya, the Olympic 800m gold medallist at both the London and Rio Games, is also a three-time world champion.
The South African government has said the rules proposed by track and field's governing body, the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), specifically target Semenya and has called them a "gross violation" of her human rights. The controversial rules would force so-called "hyperandrogenic" athletes or those with "differences of sexual development" (DSD) to take drugs to lower testosterone levels below a prescribed amount if they wish to compete.
The rules were to have been introduced last November but have been put on hold pending this week's hearings at the Lausanne-based CAS which Semenya is expected to attend. A judgement is expected by the end of March. The issue is highly emotive. When British newspaper The Times reported last week that the IAAF would argue that Semenya should be classified as a biological male -- a claim later denied by the IAAF -- she hit back, saying she was "unquestionably a woman".
In response to the report, the IAAF -- stressing it was referring in general terms, not to Semenya in particular -- denied it intended to classify any DSD athlete as male.
But in a statement, it added: "If a DSD athlete has testes and male levels of testosterone, they get the same increases in bone and muscle size and strength and increases in haemoglobin that a male gets when they go through puberty, which is what gives men such a performance advantage over women.
"Therefore, to preserve fair competition in the female category, it is necessary to require DSD athletes to reduce their testosterone down to female levels before they compete at international level.