Caster Semenya (born January 7th, 1991) is a middle-distance runner from South Africa who is a 2x Olympic gold medalist and 3x World Champion in the 800m. Hailing from Polokwane, South Africa, Semenya began running to train for soccer but soon found her specialty in the sport of track and field.
Semenya’s international debut was in 2008 at the World Junior Championships where she took home the gold in the 800m. Throughout the season, she continued to progress and achieved personal best times and gold medals in the 800 and 1500m at the African Junior Championships in 2009. In 2009 her times improved dramatically, eventually beating the senior and junior national records. She went on to race at the 2009 World Championships where she posted the fastest time of the year and was named as the #1 Women’s 800m Runner of the year by Track and Field News.
Her rapid improvements in performance had started to raise eyebrows, where people started to question her gender identity as a female and whether or not she was taking illegal steroids. The International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) asked her to take a sex verification test to determine if she was biologically and physiologically female. The IAAF stated it was obliged to investigate after seeing such an unprecedent improvement in her times.
The IAAF requested the test only hours before the 800m final at the 2009 World Championships but that the results themselves were never officially published. However, results were leaked to the press which generated a lot of discussion and controversy over Semenya’s eligibility to compete as well as the ethical implications of forcing Semenya to undergo the testing in the first place. The IAAF received a lot of criticism from athletes, coaches, and people in South Africa who challenged the validity of the tests and the undertones of European colonialism and racism in singling out Semenya. In response, the IAAF president, Lamine Diack stated…
“There was a leak of confidentiality at some point and this led to some insensitive reactions.”
Following the leaked results, the IAAF confirmed that it did require Caster Semenya to undergo sex verification testing but backtracked to justify the test was to “determine whether she had a rare medical advantage that gave her an unfair advantage.” This lead to Semenya’s coach with Athletics South Africa (ASA) to resign, recognizing that ASA “did not advise Ms. Semenya properly” and that he failed to stand by her. In addition, ASA president, Leonard Chuene admitted that they lied to Semenya about the purpose of the test and the people involved. The IAAF denied that racism was an underlying factor; but this too was challenged by many prominent civic leaders, politicians and activists in South Africa who felt that Semenya’s privacy, legal rights and dignities were violated.
Caster Semenya was officially classified as an athlete with “Hyperandrogenism” which is a medical condition that is characterised as having high levels of androgens (male hormones such as testosterone) naturally produced in a female body.
Throughout this experience Semenya received a lot of positive support within South Africa. By the end of 2009, Semenya reached an agreement with the IAAF that she was allowed to keep her medal from the World Championships and that her records set would stand. In July 2010, she was cleared to compete again.
Semenya returned to competition with the focus of competing in the Commonwealth games the following October, but she struggled to regain her form and was forced to skip the games due to an injury. However, she was named one of New Statesman’s “50 People That Matter” following events of the previous year by creating a debated on the “international and often ill-tempered debate on gender politics, feminism, and race, becoming an inspiration to gender campaigners around the world” In 2011, the IAAF adopted new policies regarding hyperandrogenism in female athletes to establish a clear protocol in regard to gender verification testing.
By 2011, recovered from her injury she began to return to her form and competed again at the IAAF World Championships, where during the 800m final she lead the field but was beaten by Mariya Savinova in a final sprint across the finish line. Semenya made her Olympic debut at the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, where she placed second in the 800m final, again she was beaten by Savinova who was not shy about sneering at Semenya’s appearance and performance at the games. In 2014, Savinova admitted to using anabolic steroids and by 2015 the World Anti-Doping Association and the Court Arbitration for Sport officially disqualified Savinova’s results from July 2010 up to the London 2012 Olympics. Reallocating her gold medals from the 2011 World Championships and the 2012 Olympic Games to the second-place runner, Caster Semenya.
In 2015, the case at the Court Abritration for Sport(CAS), Dutee Chand v. Athletics Federation of India (AFI) & The International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) lead to the suspension of the IAAF’s 2011 policies regarding Hyperandrogenism after Dutee Chand, another track athlete who lives with Hyperandrogenism was barred from competing at the 2014 Commonwealth Game and the 2014 Asian Games by the Athletic Federation of India. The ruling of the CAS required the IAAF to provide scientific evidence that testosterone increased performance in female athletes within two years.After two years, the IAAF failed to produce the required evidence and Chand’s ban was declared void. Chand often cites Semenya as her inspiration to keep moving forward.
By 2016 Caster Semenya returned to the South African National Championships where she became the first athlete to win the 400m, 800m, and the 1500m titles. She went on to compete at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio where she won the gold medal in the 800m. However, her win again, created controversy when fellow athlete Lynsey Sharp, who finished 6th. Broke down into tears, stating…
“It was difficult to compete against Caster Semenya and other hyperandrogenic athletes after the rule to suppress testosterone levels was overturned.”
Sharp was later criticized for her cold response towards Semenya, Sharp stated “There were two races being run.” And another competitor, Joanna Jozwik who placed 5th stated in response to finishing the race, “I’m glad I’m the first European, the second white”
Her Olympic performance again, drew controversy as some commentators went on to question Semenya’s testosterone levels. Including a geneticist named Eric Vilain stating…
“If we push this argument, anyone declaring a female gender can compete as a woman … We’re moving toward one big competition, and the very predictable result of that competition is that there will be no women winners.”
However, other commentators pointed out that the statements are often only made, and the controversy exists only when an athlete wins. It has also lead to the discussion that the policies of hyperandrogenism are biased toward European standards of femininity in sport and that athletes from Africa and Asia, whom often exhibit higher levels of androgens, are unfairly targeted on this level of discrimination.
Following the 2016 Olympics, Semenya went on to race at the 2017 World Championships in London where she won bronze in the 1500m and gold in the 800m. By April 2018, the IAAF announced a change to their hyperandrogenism policy and now requires hyperandrogenism athletes to take testosterone suppression medication beginning November 2018. However, the policy changes are only specific to athletes competing in the 400, 800m, and 1500m events. There is a lot of question in regard to if this policy is designed to specifically target Caster Semenya. Semenya has since filed an appeal with the Court Arbitration of Sport which has delayed the implementation of the new policy until March 2019 pending the ruling of the CAS.
Caster Semenya is married to her longtime partner, Violet Raseboya and resides in South Africa where she continues to train and compete.
By Dirk Smith