You might not know the name Caster Semenya, but it’s likely you’ve heard her story.
When she was only 18 years old, the South African runner won gold at the 2009 world championships in the 800 meters. She went on to win the silver medal at the London Olympics, and is the overwhelming favorite in Rio.
But, unlike her record-setting peers on the track, Semenya isn’t best known for her speed.
Semenya is allegedly intersex. Ever since three hours before her world championship race in 2009 — when news unacceptably leaked that the International Association of Athletics Foundation (IAAF) was going to subject her to a gender test — she has been more famous for her naturally-occurring testosterone levels than her talent.
“God made me the way I am and I accept myself.”
Over the last seven years, the narrative surrounding Semenya has taken on a life of its own. She’s no longer viewed as a human being; she’s merely a concept to debate. While others get fawning Sports Illustrated covers when they dominate their sports, Semenya gets ridiculed and questioned, poked and prodded.
When the controversy over her gender erupted, it took Semenya and those close to her by surprise. According to the Guardian, at the world championships, she “was so overwhelmed by the global controversy that she had to be persuaded to accept her gold medal.”
Still, through it all, Semenya just keeps running, and refuses to apologize for the body she was given.
“God made me the way I am and I accept myself,” she said back in 2009, when intimate details about her body first became a talking point for pundits.
“I can’t stop running because of people,” Semenya said to the BBC last year, as reported by ESPN. “If you have a problem with it, come straight to me and tell me. I cannot stop because people say no she looks like a man this and that. It’s their problem, not mine.”
That attitude in itself is worth celebrating.
Now, before we continue, let’s get a few of the facts straight.
The IAAF cleared Semenya to compete in 2010, and the following year, it implemented new regulations for women with hyperandrogenism, or elevated testosterone levels. The purpose of the new rule was to maintain the division between men’s and women’s sports, based on the belief that the primary reason that elite male athletes are better than elite female athletes is testosterone.
If women tested had testosterone levels higher than the new rules permitted, they had to artificially lower them through medication or invasive surgery in order to keep competing against other women.
However, in 2015, the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) ordered the IAAF to suspend those regulations, because they found there was not sufficient scientific evidence that elevated testosterone levels are directly related to athletic superiority. CAS gave the IAAF and International Olympic Committee until 2017 to find better scientific proof to back up their claims.
Thus, Semenya’s presence in Rio is completely by the rules. Furthermore, it’s crucial to note that she has never been suspected of doping or cheating in any way; her condition has never been officially confirmed or detailed; and there is no definitive proof that she took anything to lower her testosterone levels between 2011 and 2015 in order to comply with IAAF regulations.
However, from 2010 to 2015, most of Semenya’s times in the 800m were great but not other-worldly, and this year, she is running even faster than she did in 2009. While there are multiple explanations for her career renaissance — she just started to work with a new coach; she is finally healthy after dealing with injuries for a few years; she is taking her fitness and training more seriously than she did earlier in her career— many assume it is because she no longer has to artificially suppress her testosterone levels.
In the past, the IAAF has specifically documented that they single out female athletes who “display masculine traits” for testosterone tests.
So how did we get here, to the place where a quiet 25-year-old from a small village in South Africa is the poster child for gender limits in sport?
Well, back in 2009, IAAF officials said they were forced to gender test Semenya because her time in the 800m dropped seven seconds in less than nine months and they had to make sure she didn’t have an “unfair advantage.” But that was not the sole reason.
“Just look at her,” Russian Mariya Savinova, who finished fifth in the 2009 world championship, told reporters after the race. (If that name sounds familiar, it’s because Savinova just happens to be known as “the face of Russia’s doping scandal.”)
Unlike drug tests, gender tests (or testosterone tests, if you will) are not carried out at random. And Semenya happens to be tall, muscular, flat-chested, and black. This is not a coincidence. According to Katrina Karkazis, a senior research scholar at the Center for Biomedical Ethics at Stanford University, in the past, IAAF specifically singled out female athletes who “display masculine traits” for testosterone tests, while the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has encouraged its national charters to “actively investigate” any “perceived deviation” in gender.
In practice, gender testing is far more about policing women’s bodies than protecting women’s sports.
Testosterone tests tend to target women who don’t fit into the ideal Western standards of what a woman should look like — delicate and overtly feminine, white and lithe. This includes women like Dutee Chand, an Indian sprinter who was selected for gender testing after her success at the 2012 under-18 national championships and 2013 Asian Championships.
The tests Chand was forced to undergo — without explanation, mind you — were extremely invasive. As reported by the New York Times, it involved an MRI and a gynecological exam that included “measuring and palpating the clitoris, vagina and labia, as well as evaluating breast size and pubic hair scored on an illustrated five-grade scale.”
She was subsequently banned from competition, and wasn’t given a reason until she found out through the media that she produced more testosterone than most women.
To echo Jessica Luther of Excelle Sports, “ How is this in any way okay? How can we care more about some old racist, transphobic, and sexist imperial idea of ‘woman’ than about the lives of these actual women?”
But instead of undergoing an operation like four elite athletes from “rural or mountainous regions of developing countries” were allegedly forced to undergo before the London games, or taking medication to alter her body’s natural chemistry, Chand decided to fight the ruling.
Thanks to Chand’s legal challenge, the CAS overturned the hypoandrogenism regulations last year. And this year, Chand made it all the way to Rio, with her natural body in tact.
But, significantly, Chand did not win the gold medal in her 100m Olympic race this week. In fact, she didn’t even advance to the semifinals, let alone the final. She finished seventh out of eight in her heat, with a time of 11.68 seconds.
Her naturally elevated testosterone levels did not launch her directly to the top of the podium, or automatically separate her from the rest of the field. Among other athletes on the Olympic stage, she was simply one of the many elites watching the handful of exceptionals breeze past them.
Chand still made the most of her trip to Rio, though, by meeting one of her idols.
This photo is everything. Tears of joy! Dutee and Caster! pic.twitter.com/qPamidKnJa
— Katrina Karkazis (@Karkazis) August 15, 2016
You’d think that Chand’s rather mortal performance would put this argument over elevated T levels into perspective. Of course, it hasn’t.
There is literally a sense of trepidation in the air ahead of Semenya’s 800m final on Saturday. Everyone is already discussing what it will mean if Semenya wins, and, heaven forbid, beats the world record time of 1:53.28. (Which at 33 years old is the longest-standing record in track and field.)
The Associated Press calls Semenya as a “dilemma.” Denise Lewis wrote in wrote in Telegraph Sport that Semenya’s inclusion is “not a healthy situation for the sport.” Tom Fordyce of the BBC wrote if Semenya breaks the world record in Rio, it could spell the end of her career because of the attention it would bring to her condition.
And Paula Radcliffe, a ridiculously dominant marathon runner in her time who currently holds the world record in the sport, says Semenya is an affront to the entire competition.
“When we talk about it in terms of fully expecting no other result than Caster Semenya to win that 800m, then it’s no longer sport,” Radcliffe told the BBC.
Semenya should not be seen as a threat; she should be seen as a treat.
But all of this pearl-clutching and fear-mongering is as absurd as it is demeaning.
After all, sports are supposed to reward freak-of-nature athletes. Looking across the Olympic games, it’s clear that there is no one “right way” to have an Olympic body, especially for women. There are super skinny and flexible synchronized swimmers, short gymnasts, plus-size weight lifters, and abnormally tall basketball players. Every elite athlete has some sort of physical advantage they were born with.
And the most dominant athletes? They really have the physical gifts. Michael Phelps has feet and hands that are practically fins. Usain Bolt is much taller than most sprinters. Simone Biles is even shorter and more muscular than the majority of the gymnastics field.
These stars have found ways to maximize the gifts they were given and take their sports to the next level. Their dominance isn’t seen as boring; it’s seen as extraordinary. How is what Semenya is doing any different? The concept of a level playing field has always been a myth. From bodies to coaches, economics to nationality, a lot of luck and chance goes into who turns into an Olympic athlete and who doesn’t.
For that reason, Semenya should not be seen as a threat; she should be seen as a treat. After all, a woman running in the body she was born with and setting records is not an affront to the sanctity of sport. It is the entire purpose of sport. We should be marveling at it.
The public flogging Semenya has endured would have broken most people. Her trip to the world championships in Berlin was only her second trip away from home, and it ended with bookmakers offering odds on her gender. Shy and private, she’s tried to stay away from the spotlight that’s followed her over the last decade, but she’s never given up her love for and dedication to her sport.
“Running is what I will always do,” Semenya said.
“Even if, maybe, the authorities could have stopped me from running in 2009, they could not have stopped me in the fields. I would have carried on with my running, it doesn’t matter. When I run I feel free, my mind is free.”
There are two more chances to see Semenya run in Rio: the 800m semifinals on Thursday night and the final on Saturday night. Cherish it, because her races are truly something special — not because of her gender, because of her greatness.