The Curious Case of Caster Semenya
On May 3rd, Caster Semenya, a renowned South African middle distance runner, won the 800-meter race at the annual International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) Diamond League season-opening meet, which took place in Doha, Qatar, with a time of 1:54. This race was her 30th consecutive win in the 800-meter race, the third fastest of her career, and the eighth fastest in outdoor track of all time. For the two-time Olympic gold medalist, hitting such a fast time was relatively unsurprising. However, this race was of special significance to the accomplished runner.
For the majority of her career, Semenya’s eligibility to compete based on her sex has been called into question. The IAAF began investigating Semenya’s sex directly after her victory in the 2009 World Championships 800 meter race. Due to her rapid improvements in competitions over the past year (she brought down her 1500 meter race time by 25 seconds, and her 800 time by 8 seconds), which often points to the use of drugs or doping in competition, the IAAF stated that it was “obliged to investigate” Semenya. In order to respect her privacy, the results of the sex test were never released to the public, but, eventually, Semenya was cleared to continue running with women and was allowed to keep her medal and award from the World Championships. Despite her clearance, Semenya’s success since the controversy has often been credited to her high testosterone levels, and the fairness of her competing with females has been widely contested.
Nine years after the sex test, the IAAF announced a new policy that would require female runners with naturally occurring high testosterone levels and specific “differences of sex development” to lower their testosterone level in order to compete in races from the four hundred meters to the one mile. Semenya and her legal team attempted to challenge this ruling and had a legal hearing regarding the new rules. However, on May 1st, 2019, just two days before her win at the race in Doha, the IAAF rejected her challenge and announced that the new policy would come into effect on May 8th. This would make the 800 meter race at Doha the last time she would ever be able to legally compete in her signature race.
Some people argue that this new policy is a fair solution to the issue of unfair advantages based on testosterone levels in female athletes, and that the ruling will only benefit the track and field world by helping to make competition as equitable as possible. Many others, however, argue that the new policy is rooted in homophobia, racism, and the targeting of Semenya herself.
“It’s not like she has tried to enhance herself in any way. I feel like everyone has physical advantages and testosterone is just another one of those examples that you’re just born with,” said Nick Yohn (‘21), a member of the varsity track team. “If you’re going to try to make all female runners have the same amount of testosterone, you might as well make them all have the same height, weight, and body type, because those are all physical advantages too, so why are you choosing testosterone as one as opposed to others?”
In comparison to world-famous Olympian swimmer Michael Phelps’s experience with physical advantage in sport, Semenya’s case is almost the direct opposite. While Phelps, a straight white man, has lauded for his physical advantages (such as producing fifty percent less lactic acid than his competitors) and he has been featured in newspaper headlines as “The man who was built to be a swimmer”. Semenya, a black woman who identifies as lesbian, is portrayed in a much different, and much more negative way.
It is unclear where Semenya and the IAAF will take this legal battle. Some speculate that Semenya may be thinking of competing in long-distance races to avoid the IAAF’s ruling, but Semenya is famous for her aptitude in middle-distance, so drastically changing her signature race would not be a simple task. The IAAF has stated that Semenya would be allowed to race with men in her signature events “without restriction,” but despite being one of the best female runners in history, Semenya’s times are incomparable to those of her male counterparts. Her best time of 1:54 is almost ten seconds slower than the male qualifying time for the 800-meter race at the Olympics. In fact, there are already several male high school athletes that are well over her personal best — this season’s fastest U.S. time for boy’s high school outdoor track is currently at 1:50.
Regardless of the eventual outcome of the IAAF’s ruling, Semenya has maintained a strong composure and remains one of the most talented female athletes in history, as was exemplified by her recent win at Doha. Despite the countless obstacles she has faced in the past year, Semenya remains hopeful, and, above all, true to herself: “I am not fake. I am natural. I am just being Caster. I don’t want to be someone I don’t want to be. I don’t want to be someone people want me to be. I was born like this. I don’t want any changes.”