Asser International Sports Law Blog

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The Asser International Sports Law Centre is part of the T.M.C. Asser Instituut

SFT rejects Semenya appeal: nothing changes - By Andy Brown

Editor's note: Andy Brown is a freelance journalist who has been writing about the governance of sport for over 15 years. He is the editor of The Sports Integrity Initiative where this blog appeared first.


For the last three days, I have been struggling with what to write regarding the Swiss Federal Tribunal’s (SFT) Decision to dismiss a challenge from Caster Semenya and Athletics South Africa (ASA) against the Court of Arbitration for Sport’s (CAS) Decision to dismiss a challenge to the Eligibility Regulations for the Female Classification (Athletes with Differences of Sex Development), otherwise known as the DSD Regulations. From reading World Athletics’ statement welcoming the ruling, one could be forgiven for thinking that it had won a major trial. Sports journalists, accustomed to covering events now curtailed by Covid-19, focus on the fact that Semenya has ‘lost’ her case against the DSD Regulations. Neither assertion is strictly accurate.

The SFT’s powers to review the CAS’s ruling are severely limited. It can only consider whether the CAS Decision violates ‘widely recognised principles of public order’ on Swiss public policy grounds. The SFT has only reversed a decision based on a a violation of Swiss public policy once in 30 years.

The SFT didn’t reconsider the evidence put forward to the CAS. ‘For there to be incompatibility with public policy, it is not enough that the evidence has been poorly assessed, that a finding of fact is manifestly false or that a rule of law has been clearly violated’, its Decision reads. ‘The only question to be resolved is in fact whether or not the verdict of the CAS renders the referred award incompatible with substantive public policy’. 

There were questions about whether the appeal from Semenya and ASA qualified to be reviewed by the SFT in the first place. World Athletics is a private organisation headquartered in Monaco, and the SFT was troubled as to whether such a complaint brought by a South African athlete against an overseas private organisation is capable of violating Swiss public policy.

‘It is doubtful whether the prohibition of discriminatory measures falls within the scope of the restrictive concept of public order when the discrimination is committed by a private person and occurs in relations between individuals’, the Decision quotes from its pervious 29 July 2019 Decision, which refused the ASA’s request to provisionally suspend the application of the DSD Regulations. ‘In any event, there is no need to examine this question further here since […] the award under appeal does not in any way establish discrimination which would be contrary to public order’

The SFT ruled that the CAS was correct to uphold conditions of participation for 46 XY DSD athletes in order to guarantee fair competition for certain disciplines in female athletics. In doing so, the SFT was ruling on whether the decision taken by the CAS violates public policy, based only on the complaints brought forward by Semenya and ASA. 

Semenya and the ASA had challenged the CAS Decision based around the idea that the DSD Regulations are discriminatory. The CAS held that they are discriminatory, but agreed with the IAAF (as World Athletics was then named) that such discrimination was necessary to protect its female category. The SFT ruled that even if the discriminatory rules of a private organisation such as the IAAF were considered able to pose a threat to public order, Semenya and the ASA had failed to demonstrate that the CAS Decision was so egregious that it posed such a threat.

‘Caster Semenya essentially alleges a violation of the prohibition of discrimination’, reads the Swiss Federal Supreme Court statement. ‘The CAS has issued a binding decision based on the unanimous opinion of the experts who were consulted that testosterone is the main factor for the different performance levels of the sexes in athletics; according to the CAS, women with the “46 XY DSD” gene variant have a testosterone level comparable to men, which gives them an insurmountable competitive advantage and enables them to beat female athletes without the “46 XY DSD” variant. Based on these findings, the CAS decision cannot be challenged. Fairness in sport is a legitimate concern and forms a central principle of sporting competition. It is one of the pillars on which competition is based. The European Court of Human Rights also attaches particular importance to the aspect of fair competition. In addition to this significant public interest, the CAS rightly considered the other relevant interests, namely the private interests of the female athletes running in the “women” category.’

Such strong support for the principle behind its DSD Regulations was rightly welcomed by World Athletics. Its statement asserted that the SFT ‘acknowledged that innate characteristics can distort the fairness of competitions’. I would argue that the SFT ruling didn’t do this, but rather found that a CAS Decision asserting this didn’t violate Swiss public policy. Semantics, perhaps.

Likewise, when World Athletics quotes the SFT Decision as confirming that ‘It is above all up to the sports federations to determine to what extent a particular physical advantage is likely to distort competition and, if necessary, to introduce legally admissible eligibility rules to remedy this state of affairs’, it is paraphrasing two texts quoted in the SFT Decision. The first is ‘La qualification juridique des rules autonomes des organizations sportive’ by Jérôme Jaquier, 2004. ‘Inborn characteristics specific to athletes in a particular group can also distort the fairness of competition’, the SFT Decision quotes from Jaquier. ‘When they enact regulations, the objective of sports federations is to ensure fair and equitable competition’.

The context of the second quote, from ‘Sportrecht – Berücksichtigung der Interessen des Sports in der Rechtsordnung’ by Martin Kaiser, 2011, is even more interesting. It is preceded with a statement from the Swiss Federal Supreme Court, which reads: ‘It is not for the Federal Court to make, abstractly, comparisons between the disciplines to assess whether a particular athlete has an advantage that makes sporting competition meaningless’

‘It is above all for the sporting federations to determine to what extent a particular physical advantage is liable to distort competition’, the SFT Decision quotes from Kaiser. ‘And, if so, to establish legally admissible eligibility rules to remedy this state of affairs’. 

Again, such details might be considered as semantics. But – I would argue – important semantics. Reading the media maelstrom that has resulted from the SFT Decision, one could be forgiven for assuming that Semenya has lost her case, and has no chance of ever defending her 800m title. However, a statement issued by her lawyers reveals that she intends to challenge the ruling in European and domestic courts.

“I am very disappointed by this ruling, but refuse to let World Athletics drug me or stop me from being who I am”, the statement continues. “Excluding female athletes or endangering our health solely because of our natural abilities puts World Athletics on the wrong side of history. 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. I know what is right and will do all I can to protect basic human rights, for young girls everywhere.” More...



The Semenya Decision of the Swiss Federal Tribunal: Human Rights on the Bench - By Faraz Shahlaei

Editor's note: Faraz Shahlaei is a JSD Candidate at Loyola Law School, Los Angeles. His research and teaching interests are public international law, international sports law, international human rights and dispute resolution.

 

The issue of international human rights was a central contention in Caster Semenya case ever since the start of her legal battle against the regulations of the IAAF. However, the human rights arguments were poorly considered in the two proceedings related to this case. To put it in perspective, it is like having a key player nailed to the bench throughout the whole game; no coach ever tried to give it a chance while it had the potential to be the game changer for all parties.

In 2019, the Human Rights Council, the inter-governmental human rights body of the UN, expressed concern over issues of discrimination in sports in particular regarding IAAF female classification regulations. In June 2020, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights submitted a report to the United Nations Human Rights Council on the “Intersection of Race and Gender Discrimination in Sport”. The report draws a detailed picture of how human rights in the Semenya case have been violated and also elaborates on the inherent problem of addressing human rights issues in alternative dispute resolution mechanisms favored by the sport governing bodies. However, despite an in-depth discussion of Caster Semenya’s case at both the CAS and then the SFT, the question of human rights, a key concern and a fundamental pillar of the case, hasn’t been adequately answered yet! More...


The SFT’s Semenya Decision under European human rights standards: Conflicting considerations and why a recourse could be successful at Strasbourg - By Kevin Gerenni

Editor's note: Kevin Gerenni is Assistant Professor in Public International Law (Facultad de Derecho de la Universidad de Buenos Aires) and LLM Candidate 2021 in Public International Law at the London School of Economics.


Even though the decision rendered by the SFT in the Semenya Case was foreseeable, the Tribunal did put forward some concerning reasoning in terms of public policy (“ordre public”) and human rights. In case Semenya decides to challenge the Swiss state before the ECtHR, one can expect the case to shake some grounds at the ECtHR, which would be faced with the question of the application to sport not of fair trial guarantees (as in Mutu & Pechstein) but of substantial human rights provisions such as the prohibition of discrimination on the basis of sex (Article 14 ECHR) and the right to private life (Article 8 ECHR).

Under Swiss law, the reasons that may lead to the annulment of an arbitral award are enumerated in art. 190 of the Swiss Private International Law Act (PILA). Semenya’s strongest case relied on art. 190(2)(e): the award’s incompatibility with public policy. Naturally, this point concentrated most of the SFT’s attention. In order to analyze the compatibility of the CAS award with Swiss public policy, the SFT focused on three main potential breaches of human rights: prohibition of discrimination, personality rights, and human dignity. In doing so, it put forward certain observations that differ with European human rights standards and the ECtHR’s jurisprudence. The purpose of this short article is to analyze those discrepancies and, consequently, Semenya’s prospects of success before the Strasbourg Tribunal.More...


Selected procedural issues –and questions– arising out the Caster Semenya Judgment of the Swiss Federal Tribunal - By Despina Mavromati

Editor's note: Dr Despina Mavromati is an attorney specializing in international sports law and arbitration (Sportlegis Lausanne) and a UEFA Appeals Body Member. She teaches sports arbitration and sports contracts at the University of Lausanne, Switzerland

 

As the title indicates, this short note only deals with selected procedural issues and questions arising out of the very lengthy Semenya Judgment. In a nutshell, the SFT dismissed Semenya’s appeal to set aside the CAS Award, which had denied the request of Caster Semenya (Semenya, the Athlete) to declare unlawful the Differences of Sex Development (DSD) Regulations of World Athletics (formerly IAAF).[1]

At the outset, it has to be reminded that the CAS Award dealt with the merits of the Semenya case in a final and binding way by rendering an arbitral award according to Article R59 of the CAS Code (and Article 190 of the Swiss Private International Law Act – PILA). Therefore, the SFT did not act as an appellate court but rather as a cassatory court, entitled to review only whether the exhaustively enumerated grounds for annulment set out in Article 190 (2) PILA were met (and provided that they were properly invoked and substantiated in the motion to set aside said award).More...

Caster Semenya Case Exposes Design Flaws in International Sports Governance - By Roger Pielke Jr.

Editor's note: Roger Pielke Jr. is a professor at the University of Colorado Boulder

 

The decision this week by the Swiss Federal Tribunal not to revisit the arbitral decision of the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) in the case of Caster Semenya was not unexpected, but it does help to expose a major design flaw in international sports governance. Specifically, the institutions that collectively comprise, create and enforce “sports law” appear incapable of addressing flawed science and violations of basic principles of medical ethics.

While different people will have different, and legitimate, views on how male-female competition classifications might be regulated, the issues highlighted involving science and ethics are not subjective, and are empirically undeniable. In normal systems of jurisprudence, procedures are in place to right such wrongs, but in sports governance processes in place prevent such course corrections. And that is a problem.

The empirical flaws in the science underpinning the IAAF (now World Athletics) Semenya regulations are by now well understood, and have been accepted by WA in print and before CAS (I was an expert witness for Semenya, and was present when IAAF accepted responsibility for the flawed research). You can read all the details here and in the CAS Semenya decision. I won’t rehash the flawed science here, but the errors are fatal to the research and obvious to see.

One key part of the comprehensive institutional failures here is that the journal which originally published the flawed IAAF research (the British Journal of Sports Medicine, BJSM) has, inexplicably, acted to protect that work from scrutiny, correction and retraction. Normally in the scientific community, when errors of this magnitude are found, the research is retracted. In this case, the BJSM refused to retract the paper, to require its authors to share their data or to publish a critique of the IAAF analysis. Instead, upon learning of the major errors, the BJSM published a rushed, non-peer reviewed letter by IAAF seeking to cover-up the errors. All of this is non-standard, and a scandal in its own right.

The violation of basic principles of medical ethics required by the implementation of the WA Semenya regulations is also not contested. Both WA and the IOC have claimed to uphold the World Medical Association’s Helsinki Declaration on medical and research ethics. Yet, the WMA has openly criticized the WA regulations as unethical and asked doctors not to implement them. In response, WA has stated that it will help athletes who wish to follow the regulations to identify doctors willing to ignore medical ethics guidelines.

Flawed science and ethical violations are obviously issues that go far beyond the case of Caster Semenya, and far beyond sport. In any normal system of jurisprudence such issues would prove readily fatal to regulatory action, either in the first instance of proposed implementation or via review and reconsideration.

Sport governance lacks such processes. At CAS, the panel claimed that matters of scientific integrity and medical ethics were outside their remit. The SFT is allowed to reconsider a CAS decision only on narrow procedural grounds, and thus also cannot consider matters of scientific integrity or medical ethics. So far then, the flaws in the WA regulations – sitting in plain sight and obvious to anyone who looks, have not been correctable.

This leaves the world of sport governance in a compromised position. Some may look past the scientific and ethical issues here, perhaps judging that barring Semenya from sport is far more important that correcting such wrongs. 

Regardless of one’s views on sex and gender classification in sport, the WA regulations and the processes that produced and have challenged them reveal that sports governance has not yet entered the 21st century. Science and ethics matter, and they should matter in sport jurisprudence as well.  It is time to correct this basic design flaw in international sport governance.

Caster Semenya at the SFT – in 10 points - By Jack Anderson

Editor's note: Jack Anderson is Professor and Director of Sports Law Studies at the University of Melbourne

 

1.     Caster Semenya appealed to the Swiss Federal Court (SFT) arguing that World Athletics’ regulations violated human rights principles relating to gender discrimination and human dignity. The Swiss Federal Tribunal (as at CAS) held that World Athletics’ regulations may prima facie breach such human rights principles but were “necessary, reasonable and proportionate” to maintain fairness in women's athletics;


2.     Although in part addressed at the SFT, expect further legal argument on this in the domestic courts of South Africa or at the ECtHR, and in the following ways:

  • Necessity - is the athletic advantage that Caster Semenya has of such a scientifically-measurable extent that it is necessary for World Athletics to intervene in such an invasive manner? In a broader ethical sense, is the incidence of what the World Athletics’ regulations call “difference of sex development” of such prevalence in the general population, and specifically in middle-distance athletics, that, by way of the principle of “sporting beneficence”, intervention is justified. Or, in contrast, is the incidence of DSD not at a level which justifies a departure from the ethical principle of primum non nocere – first, do no harm?
  • Reasonableness - if World Athletics’ regulations are necessary, is the manner of implementation reasonable and in line with the principle of human and bodily integrity? In answering such a question, the focus must be on the fact that in order to continue to compete in her favourite events (such as the 800 metres) Caster Semenya will have to lower her testosterone level through medication;
  • Proportionate - if World Athletics’ regulations are necessary and reasonable is the manner of implementation proportionate? In answering such a question, the focus must be on whether the regulations disproportionately discriminate against a certain, limited group of athletes in a certain, limited number of events and in a certain, limited manner.More...


Chronicle of a Defeat Foretold: Dissecting the Swiss Federal Tribunal’s Semenya Decision - By Marjolaine Viret

Editor's note: Marjolaine is a researcher and attorney admitted to the Geneva bar (Switzerland) who specialises in sports and life sciences.

 

On 25 August 2020, the Swiss Supreme Court (Swiss Federal Tribunal, SFT) rendered one of its most eagerly awaited decisions of 2020, in the matter of Caster Semenya versus World Athletics (formerly and as referenced in the decision: IAAF) following an award of the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS). In short, the issue at stake before the CAS was the validity of the World Athletics eligibility rules for Athletes with Differences of Sex Development (DSD Regulation). After the CAS upheld their validity in an award of 30 April 2019, Caster Semenya and the South African Athletics Federation (jointly: the appellants) filed an application to set aside the award before the Swiss Supreme Court.[1] The SFT decision, which rejects the application, was made public along with a press release on 8 September 2020.

There is no doubt that we can expect contrasted reactions to the decision. Whatever one’s opinion, however, the official press release in English does not do justice to the 28-page long decision in French and the judges’ reasoning. The goal of this short article is therefore primarily to highlight some key extracts of the SFT decision and some features of the case that will be relevant in its further assessment by scholars and the media.[2]

It is apparent from the decision that the SFT was very aware that its decision was going to be scrutinised by an international audience, part of whom may not be familiar with the mechanics of the legal regime applicable to setting aside an international arbitration award in Switzerland.

Thus, the decision includes long introductory statements regarding the status of the Court of Arbitration for Sport, and the role of the Swiss Federal Tribunal in reviewing award issued by panels in international arbitration proceedings. The SFT also referred extensively throughout its decision to jurisprudence of the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR), rendered in cases related to international sport and the CAS. More...

How 2019 Will Shape the International Sports Law of the 2020s - By Thomas Terraz

Editor’s note: Thomas Terraz is a fourth year LL.B. candidate at the International and European Law programme at The Hague University of Applied Sciences with a specialisation in European Law. Currently he is pursuing an internship at the T.M.C. Asser Institute with a focus on International and European Sports Law.

 

1.     Introduction

As we begin plunging into a new decade, it can be helpful to look back and reflect on some of the most influential developments and trends from 2019 that may continue to shape international sports law in 2020 and beyond. Hence, this piece will not attempt to recount every single sports law news item but rather identify a few key sports law stories of 2019 that may have a continued impact in the 2020s. The following sections are not in a particular order.More...

Caster Semenya’s Legal Battle Against Gender Stereotypes: On Nature, Law and Identity - By Sofia Balzaretti (University of Fribourg)

Editor's note: Sofia Balzaretti is a Graduate research assistant and a PhD candidate at the University of Fribourg (Switzerland) where she is writing a thesis on the Protection against Gender Stereotypes in International Law. In addition to research in human rights and feminist legal theory, she has also carried out some research in legal philosophy and on the relationship between gender and the law.

 

The International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), the monitoring body of track and field athletics, regularly submitted South African middle distance runner and Olympic gold medalist Mokgadi Caster Semenya to sex verification tests when it began questioning her sexual characteristics and speculating whether her body belonged on the Disorder of Sex Development (DSD) spectrum. DSD Syndrome is often defined as an “intersex condition” which affects the clear development of either/or genitalia, gonads and chromosomes into one distinctive sex or another. The spectrum of the intersex condition is particularly wide, and the disorder can sometimes be minimal - some cases of female infertility can actually be explained by an intersex condition.

The IAAF deemed the controversial sex verification tests necessary on the grounds that it was required to prove Semenya did not have a “medical condition” which could give her an “unfair advantage”. It was eventually found that, because of an intersex trait, Semenya did have abnormally high levels of testosterone for a woman, which, in the IAAF’s opinion, justified a need for regulatory hormonal adjustments in order for her to keep competing in the women’s category. The IAAF also funded research to determine how ‘hyperandrogenism’ affects athletic performance. In 2018, it issued Eligibility Regulations on Female Classification (“Athlete with Differences of Sexual Development”) for events from 400m to the mile, including 400m, hurdles races, 800m and 1’500m. The IAAF rules indicated that in case of an existing high level of testosterone, suppression or regulation by chemotherapy, hormonal castration, and/or iatrogenic irradiation was mandatory in order to take part in these events.

Semenya and her lawyers challenged the IAAF Regulations in front of the CAS, who, in a very controversial decision, deemed the Regulations a necessary, reasonable and proportionate mean “of achieving the aim of what is described as the integrity of female athletics and for the upholding of the ‘protected class’ of female athletes in certain events” (§626). More...

Why we should stop focusing on Caster Semenya by Marjolaine Viret (University of Neuchâtel)

Editor's Note:  Marjolaine is an attorney admitted to the Geneva bar (Switzerland) who specialises in sports and life sciences.  She currently participates as a scientific collaborator at the University of Neuchâtel on a research project to produce the first article-by-article legal commentary of the 2015 World Anti-Doping Code.

Over the past days, we have been flooded by media reports discussing the “Caster Semenya-case”, reports rapidly relayed in social networks. Since the debate has a distinct legal component and since almost every report appears to draw significantly from the legal background, I granted myself permission – as compensation so to speak - to publish a somewhat more personal, less legal, post than I usually would.

Let me make one thing clear from the outset – I am still ‘agnostic’ about the question of how to solve the issues surrounding the male versus female divide in sports. Each time I have been asked to write or speak on the subject, I have tried to stick to describing the legal situation and its implications. I do not have the miracle solution as to how to handle this infinitely complex issue. And I am not sure anyone can claim to hold that solution at this point. Like everyone, I am doing my research and trying to be humble enough to stay within the realm of my competences. More...