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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).


The granting - and subsequent lifting - of the suspensive effect of the DSD Regulations

This was one of the few cases in sports arbitration where the SFT granted an urgent interim relief (mesures superprovisionnelles), by ordering World Athletics to suspend the implementation of the DSD Regulations, only to lift such relief shortly afterwards for lack of prima facie “reasonable chances of success”. The fate of the motion to set aside the CAS Award appeared to be ominous already at that stage. Another relatively recent case where the SFT granted interim relief (only to revoke it later) was the Guerrero case. 


Legal interest of a federation in order to “support” its member athletes

According to the admissibility conditions of the Law on the Federal Tribunal (LTF), the party filing a motion to set aside a CAS award must have a current interest worthy of protection. It is e.g. extremely difficult to meet this condition in a case relating to a competition that already took place. It One must also have a “personal” legal interest worthy of protection (see the SFT judgment in the matter of FIFA v. P. Guerrero & WADA). World Athletics contested the “personal” legal interest of Athletics South Africa but the SFT drew the distinction between this case and one of its previous judgments (the Guerrero case), where FIFA had contested a doping-related sanction imposed by the CAS before the SFT. Other than in the Guerrero case, the Athlete’s national federation (ASA) had not previously rendered a decision on the Athlete; moreover, national federations are directly concerned by the DSD Regulations to the extent that they need to actively collaborate with their international federation for their effective implementation (Semenya Judgment, at 4.1.3) This means that, in similar cases in the future, member federations have also standing to challenge the validity of such regulations.


Waivers to appeal to the SFT against CAS awards are invalid, full stop.

The waiver to bring the case before the CAS included in the disputed DSD Regulations was, obviously, invalid to the extent that it was not the “fruit of an explicit consent” by the Athlete. The latter had thus the right to contest the CAS Award before the SFT and this federal jurisprudence has remained unaltered since the groundbreaking Cañas SFT judgment (see the Semenya Judgment at 4.2.4).


The CAS independence revisited – even though not questioned by the parties

Unlike other athletes, Caster Semenya did not attack the CAS Award suggesting the lack of independence or impartiality of the CAS—either as an arbitral institution or as the subjective independence of its arbitrators (see the Semenya Judgment at 5.1.2). The SFT still deemed important to repeat its jurisprudence on the institutional independence and the specialized character of the CAS, to which the parties brought their dispute (see the Semenya Judgment including all references to SFT and ECtHR case law at 5.1.2).


The meaning - and limits - of the SFT leitmotiv “facts established by the CAS Panel are binding upon the SFT”

This is the reason most often invoked by the SFT when declaring inadmissible a particular grievance raised by the parties as a “criticism of appellatory nature” (see also “faits constatés dans la sentence” in the Semenya Judgment at 5.2.2). It is well-known that, unlike the de novo review by the CAS under Article R57 CAS Code, the SFT will not review the facts as they were established by the CAS Panel – save for the most exceptional circumstances (see the Semenya Judgment at 5.2.3 f.).

In the particular circumstances of this case, the facts binding on the SFT did not prevent the latter from reviewing the legality of the DSD Regulations. The SFT could however only consider the facts as they were established in the CAS award and not in the parties’ version of facts, to the extent that these versions deviated from the CAS factual findings (see the Semenya Judgment at 6). As such, the starting point for such analysis (and obviously one of key importance) was the Panel’s factual finding that athletes subject to the DSD Regulations enjoy an “overwhelming” advantage over other female athletes that are not subject to such regulations (see the Semenya Judgment -“avantage insurmontable”- at 9.6.2, at 9.8.2 and 11.1).


Swiss law not applicable in the case at hand

With the international federation based in Monaco (an exception to the rule that international federations are based in Switzerland), the CAS Panel proceeded to the interpretation of the DSD Regulations based on the IAAF Constitution and Rules, the Olympic Charter, and Monegasque law. As such, it held that Swiss law was not applicable to the merits and the SFT confirmed such finding (See the Semenya Judgment at 5.1.1). This, however, does not seem to have any influence on the SFT’s findings to the extent that the latter is not an appellate court and should not evaluate the application of Swiss–or any other—law applied in the specific case (see the Semenya Judgment at 9.1).


Violation of the constitution of the panel for unduly limiting its (full) scope of review

The Athlete raised a—rather unusual—ground for annulment (particularly based on the ground of irregular composition of the tribunal) because the panel had allegedly refused to amend or complement the DSD Regulations, thereby unduly limiting its scope of review. The SFT dismissed the plea holding that the full power of review of the panel related to the control of the proportionality of the DSD Regulations and not their amendment. The SFT dismissed the plea as unfounded, even though it implicitly considered that this plea does not even fall within the scope of irregular composition of the arbitral tribunal under Article 190 (2) (a) PILA but could – at most – constitute a violation of the parties’ right to be heard (see the Semenya Judgment -with further references- at 7).


Violation of substantive public policy – the three pleas invoked by the Athlete

Caster Semenya’s request for annulment of the CAS Award due to a violation of substantive public policy was divided into three pleas: the violation of the principle of prohibition of discrimination, the violation of personality rights of the Athlete and the violation of the Athlete’s human dignity. In this respect, the two conflicting groups were the athletes subject to the DSD Regulations against the athletes who were not subject to the DSD Regulations.


Horizontal Application of the Prohibition of discrimination ?

The prohibition of discrimination as foreseen in Art. 8 (2) of the Swiss Constitution applies to the relation between individuals and the State and has no “horizontal” effect. Sports associations are considered “private” parties notwithstanding their size and thus discrimination resulting from such private parties does not form part of the essential values that form public policy. The “private” character of sports associations has long been an obstacle for athletes when invoking violations of their constitutional guarantees and was also mentioned in this judgment (at 9.4).

Notwithstanding its insistence on the “private” character of sports associations, the SFT does seem to hesitantly develop its jurisprudence. Similar to the principles of interpretation under Swiss law, where the SFT has held that statutes of large federations must be interpreted in accordance with the principles of interpretation of a (states’) legal acts (see e.g. the Kuwait Motorsport SFT Judgment), the SFT acknowledged in the Semenya case that the relationship between an athlete and a large (international) sports association bears similarities to the relationship between an individual and a state (see the Semenya Judgment, at 9.4).

In any event, this interesting debate will have to wait for another judgment since the SFT eventually found that there was no violation of the prohibition of the principle of discrimination by following the argumentation of the CAS Panel, whereby a discriminatory measure can still be allowed if justified by a legitimate objective (in casu the principle of equality of chances). In the case at hand, the SFT relied on the assessment made by the CAS Panel which, after hearing all the arguments raised by the parties, resulted in a reasonable outcome (or at least to a “not unreasonable” outcome) (see the Semenya Judgment, at 9.4 and at


Breach of personality rights and the difference from the Matuzalem judgment

On the breach of personality rights plea, the SFT reiterated its limited scope within the public policy grievance, which requires a clear and severe violations of a fundamental right. Again, the DSD Regulations were not found to fall within the (narrow) scope of Art. 27 Swiss CO, neither from the viewpoint of physical integrity nor from the viewpoint of economic freedom (see the Semenya Judgment, at 10.1).

Other than in the Matuzalem case (the first – and only SFT judgment that annulled a CAS award for violation of substantive public policy so far), the athlete would still be capable of participating in the specified competitions after complying with the conditions set out in the DSD Regulations; moreover, there was no imminent risk of their economic existence as was in the Matuzalem case, whereas the measure was found to be able to achieve the desired goal, were necessary and proportionate (see the Semenya Judgment at 10.5).


Violation of human dignity

The SFT seemed to endorse the CAS Panel’s findings in this respect, and concluded that the impossibility to participate in specific competitions would not amount to a violation of the athlete’s human dignity.

Should the SFT broaden the scope of public policy for sports arbitration? The SFT still says “no”

The scope of substantive public policy according to well-established jurisprudence of the SFT is extremely narrow and such limited review is compatible with the ECtHR (see the Semenya Judgment with references to the Platini Judgment at 5.2.5; see also the Semenya Judgment at The SFT, once again, refused to broaden the scope of the public policy as a ground for annulment of CAS awards. This reminds us of a somewhat different yet analogous attempt of the parties in the SFT Judgment 4A_312/2017. The SFT had reiterated its position that there should be no different notion of public policy tailored to sports arbitration.[2]


Closing remarks: The Athlete’s requests for relief and the inherent limits of arbitration in similar cases

It is interesting to note that the Athlete did not appeal to the CAS against a decision finding her ineligible to compete based on the concrete application of the DSD Regulations. She rather filed a claim with the CAS attacking the legality of the DSD Regulations– for all the reasons mentioned in the CAS award and the SFT judgment.

This resulted in the CAS Panel finding – and the SFT confirming - that the DSD Regulations could not be invalidated as such but left the door open for future challenges: the DSD Regulations may prove disproportionate in their application, if e.g. it should prove impossible to apply them, in case of a specific athlete subject to the DSD Regulations where their application proves impossible or disproportionate (see the Semenya Judgment, at

The Athlete would thus – theoretically – be able to file a new case with the CAS, once the DSD Regulations were implemented and following a potential decision on ineligibility. This shows the difficulty in directly challenging a set of regulations in cases where the hearing authority considers that it is rather their application in a concrete case that may give rise to a specific violation of athletes’ rights. The CAS panel, as an arbitral tribunal, is inherently limited by the scope of the appeal, which in the present case was Caster Semenya’s claim to have the DSD Regulations declared invalid as such.

[1] For an insightful overview of the facts behind the judgment and the findings of the SFT, see Marjolaine Viret, Chronicle of a Defeat Foretold: Dissecting the Swiss Federal Tribunal’s Semenya Decision – in the Asser International Sports Law Blog of 9 September 2020.

[2] See SFT Judgment 4A_312/2017 of 27 November 2017.
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