By Wisdom Olobayo
The referee points the starting pistol skywards, flanked by a roaring crowd to his right and an array of eight hyper focused athletes waiting to hear the blast of the gun to his left.
“On your marks.”
BOOM! The gun goes off!
A sturdy, well-built 18-year-old hotshot races into an early lead, leaving some of the world’s best athletes to eat dust. And with all of South Africa behind their own, a new champion from Limpopo is born, powering across the finishing line with a time of 1 minute, 55 seconds, and 45 microseconds, claiming Gold at the 2009 International Association of Athletics Federation (IAAF) World Championship.
This very moment would become the starting block of a remarkable and unforgettable career. And for the rest of our lives, too, we’d never forget the name; Caster Semenya.
The moment the race was over, rumors made the rounds concerning a gender investigation. The IAAF, reportedly, wanted to know whether Caster was a woman or a man. And in November of the same year, they seemed to confirm the rumors by barring Caster from all track events—a punitive measure usually reserved for athletes who failed doping tests. Only the offense, in this case, was genetics.
“What is a woman?”
This singular question, promulgated by a certain Matt Walsh, might go on to be crowned the most popular question of the year 2023—and for good reasons. It took the IAAF a full eleven months to answer this question, allowing Caster to return to track after accepting “the conclusion of a panel of medical experts.” The bold-faced athlete was allowed to run again. But with each triumph—and there have been many—came debilitating scrutiny and even further uncertainty about what a woman is from IAAF quarters. (See here for Caster Semenya’s track records). Doubtless, restrictions that seemed to target Caster in particular rolled in one after another.
Caster was born with Hyperandrogenism, a rare genetic condition that could present itself as symptoms congruent with Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS) or as a DSD (Differences of Sexual Development) condition. Females with “Hyperandrogenism related to DSD” are reported by various research papers to produce testosterone at levels several times more significant than those found in most other women and by effect, bound to have a greater competitive advantage in “physical contact” sports and track and field. It, however, remains one of the hottest debate topics in the world of sports.
In 2011, the IAAF issued a policy requiring all female athletes who wished to participate in international track competitions to have their testosterone levels reduced to under 10 nanomoles/Litre (the testosterone levels of the average female human are between 0.06 to 1.68 nmol/L). Caster fought back legally, as expected, but her participation in the 2012 London Olympics seems to be an indication that she later complied. Undeterred by the restriction, she clinched the silver medal in the 800 meters category, but in a favourable twist of events picked up the gold medal after the original winner was disqualified for violating doping rules. This particular race in her career became the proof her critics needed that she indeed has an unfair advantage in her hyperandrogenism. She would go on to win three more gold medals in the same category; one each at the World Championships held in Moscow and London in 2013 and 2017 respectively, and one at the Olympics in 2016. Two of the medals however came after the imposed restriction on testosterone levels was overruled by the Court of Arbitration for Sports (CAS) in 2015 citing the “absence of evidence.”
As if in response to Caster Semenya’s serial successes, the next restriction came in 2018, demanding that “any athlete who has a Difference of Sexual Development (DSD)…must reduce her blood testosterone level to below five (5) nmol/L for a continuous period of at least six months (e.g., by use of hormonal contraceptives); and thereafter must maintain her blood testosterone level below five (5) nmol/L continuously (i.e: whether she is in competition or out of competition) for so long as she wishes to remain eligible”. Once again, Caster went on to appeal to CAS against this regulation citing that she “suffered from regular fevers and had constant internal abdominal pain” caused by taking testosterone dampeners between 2010 and 2015. This time, however, CAS upheld the IAAF’s restrictions after they released a 163-page document (here is a summary) explaining why DSD athletes need to be on the dampeners. Caster filed yet another appeal, this time at the Swiss Federal Supreme Court, and lost. Determined to keep competing without restriction, Caster took her appeal (the third) to the European Court of Human Rights.
Semenya has since refused to take any medication that will inhibit her natural ability and as a result, has been barred from competing in international events that have been marked as “restricted” since the regulation took effect in 2019. In her own words, “I’ll always run 800 metres …The 800 metres is my calling, I believe in it. I can’t be forced to switch races, I’ll switch when I want to switch races. No man can tell me what to do.” Caster has always interpreted the regulations that have plagued her career as prejudice against women and an assault on women’s rights, but not so many other women have come together in agreement with her on this matter, especially fellow track athletes in the 800m category who really cannot compete against her natural advantage, with one particular athlete she faced at the World Championship in Berlin referring to her as a “man” while speaking to reporters after the race.
The IAAF and other critics have several times debunked the allegation that the new regulations determining eligibility is a witch-hunt of Caster or an affront against her claimed femininity. In the words of Michael Beloff, Chairman of the IAAF Ethics Board, ‘‘It’s not that they are not women. The question is something different: Should they be able to compete as women in a sporting contest that’s got a binary divide? It is on this exact line that Caster contends. Who decides what is “woman” enough? Is femininity a deciding factor of sex? Reflecting on her earlier running days in 2008, she talked about how she offered to show officials her genitals when rumours sprang up regarding her sex, in a desperate attempt to avoid unfair backlash or be disqualified from the Olympics that was ahead.
In July 2023, she won her appeal at the court by a majority of four out of seven judges on the panel with the court stating that there was a “violation of the prohibition of discrimination taken together with the right to respect for private life as well as a violation of the right to an effective remedy.” perpetrated by the IAAF (now called World Athletics). This, however, does not still qualify the 31-year-old to participate again in track events regulated by World Athletics. It remains to be seen, whether we have heard the last of Caster Semenya on the track.
Disclaimer: It took me so long to get this article together, owing to its highly controversial nature (if you notice, I didn’t use any pronouns to address her for the most part of this piece). The links are there so that you can go through the facts and find the truth for yourself. But regardless of what you believe, please ensure you keep your conversations, opinions, and debates about Caster respectful and humane.