A Decade of Doubt: Caster Semenya
‘When we’re too good, there’s something wrong with us’
- Serena Williams narrating footage of Semenya in Nike’s new advert, ‘Dream Crazier’
Caster Semenya, a South African middle-distance runner, has many titles to her name including two-time Commonwealth Champion, two-time World Champion and two-time Olympic champion. Alas, the last decade of her career has been tainted by public discussions and accusations, not questioning her success as such, but challenging how her body has enabled her to break multiple records and achieve such sporting greatness - her victories have sparked an ongoing debate about testosterone levels.
Following on from her gold-medal-winning 800m run at the 2009 World Championships in Berlin, Semenya was subjected to sex verification; testing to verify the eligibility of an athlete to compete in sporting event that is limited to a single sex. Despite the fact that it would take several months to verify the result, the test was announced publicly, triggering a press frenzy surrounding Semenya’s sex and whether she would be stripped of her titles; undoubtedly a very humiliating process. This public analysis stretched far beyond her athletic ability, leading to discussions surrounding her muscular physique, her deep voice, her clothing choices, her sexuality, and so forth. The International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) confirmed in July 2010 that Semenya was cleared to continue competing as a woman, and although these results were never officially released for privacy reasons, the statement confirmed that her sporting success had been ‘legal’.
Despite this ruling in 2010 and Semeya’s continued success in competition, most recently in 2018 at the Commonwealth Games, this sex verification was only the beginning of what has become a decade of doubt surrounding her eligibility to compete. This questioning has extended to all women subject to hyperandrogenism; a medical condition characterized by excessive levels of androgens such as testosterone.
The IAAF adopted a rule in 2011 whereby female athletes with naturally occurring testosterone levels above 10 nanomoles per litre of blood would have to undergo hormone therapy to artificially lower that number, meaning that Semenya underwent therapy. Whilst her times slowed, she still managed to win the silver medal at the London 2012 Olympics. While the hyperandrogenism debate remained prominent, it regained the attention of the mass media when an Indian sprinter, Dutee Chand, refused to undergo hormone therapy and took her case to the international Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS). As a result of this case, the IAAF policy on hyperandrogenism was suspended for two years in 2015 in light of a lack of evidence to prove that testosterone increased female performance.
However, the IAAF announced new rules in April 2018 requiring hyperandrogenous athletes to take medication to lower their testosterone level, following studies which found that elite female track and field athletes with higher levels of testosterone enjoy a 1.8 percent to 4.5 percent competitive advantage over women with lower levels. These rules would only apply (as of November 2018) to athletes competing in the 400m, 800m, and 1500m; the three distances that Semenya has competed in.
While some athletes, particularly those with lower levels of testosterone, have hailed this as a step towards equality for women in track and field disciplines, others have argued that the ruling unfairly targets or punishes Semenya. In July 2018 the Human Rights Watch accused the IAAF of discriminating against female athletes with naturally high levels of testosterone, whilst Nike’s new advert makes their position clear.
Semenya has since challenged this rule proposed by the IAAF and her case has been heard by CAS, the same international court approached by Chand, with a judgement expected by March 26 (2019).