CASTER SEMENYA was only a teenager when the intimate details of her life were paraded in front of the world for debate and discussion. She was sidelined for 11 months following the humiliation of a gender test that cast doubt over her future. She returned to the track and field, initially subdued, but has peaked to demolish her competition. Britain’s Lyndsey Sharp cried after finishing sixth in the Rio Olympics saying competing against Semenya was difficult.
Semenya’s future is once again in the balance.
Caster Semenya is in Switzerland this week for her legal battle against the IAAF in a week-long hearing which will not only expose the hypocrisy of the IAAF but put into sharp scrutiny the debate on identity. The international governing body of athletics wants her to take medication in order to artificially lower her testosterone levels or compete against men, in what it says is “levelling the playing field”. The ruling would apply only to women who race in the track events between 400m and 1500m.
The fact that the IAAF seeks to impose restrictions only on women and not men, and only those who run within specified distances clearly shows that this issue is not about “fairness in the sport” as it would want us to believe. There are men who run much faster than others and their level of testosterone is not questioned – it is accepted as a natural talent that separates the wheat from the chaff. That is what competition is about.
Transgender women are allowed to compete against women in what the tennis great, Martina Navratilova, described as “cheating” and “insane”. “You can’t just proclaim yourself a female and be able to compete against women. There must be some standards, and having a penis and competing as a woman would not fit that standard,” she tweeted last year.
Unlike the transgender women, Semenya was born a woman and her testosterone levels are natural – she does not use enhancing drugs.
Her testosterone levels give her the advantage her detractors say. So what? We are all born with characteristics that give us the edge over others and this is accepted as the natural inequality of the world.
The issue of Semenya’s gender has reared its head once again. Is she a woman or a man, the public wants to know. She caught the world’s attention in 2009, largely unknown, to win the World Championship 800m title which she ran in 1:55:45, well off the record of the 1:53:28 set by the Czech Republic’s Jarmilla Kratochvilova in 1983. Semenya underwent intense scrutiny thereafter and had to undergo a gender test, the results of which were not disclosed. Speculation ran rife then that she had shown male and female characteristics and high levels of testosterone.
She was banned from competing while waiting for the results of the gender test but the ban was lifted in 2010.
At the time the IAAF said: “The process initiated in 2009 in the case of Caster Semenya has now been completed…The IAAF accepts the conclusion of a panel of medical experts that she can compete with immediate effect. Please note that the medical details of the case remain confidential and the IAAF will make no further comment on the matter.”
Semenya has emphatically said she is “unquestionably a woman”.
Three years after the gender test, she made her debut at the 2012 London Olympics winning silver. She was controlled, hanging back and allowing her counterparts to take the lead before she upped the ante in the finish straight.
Four years later, she was in the commanding seat, powering to a gold at the Rio Olympics. She set a national record to win in one minute 55.28 seconds and finish well clear of silver medallist Francine Niyonsaba of Burundi.
Britain’s Lynsey Sharp, who finished sixth, wept saying the decision by the Court of Arbitration on Sport (CAS) to overturn the suppression on testosterone made it difficult to beat Semenya.
The furore dates back to 2011 when the IAAf introduced a limit on the amount of testosterone a female competitor could have in their bloodstream of 10 nanomoles per litre (nmol/L), approximately five to six times over the usual female range for the hormone.
But in 2014 the Indian sprinter Dutee Chand started a legal challenge against the rule at CAS and, a year later, sport’s highest court told the IAAF to suspend the rule for two years, pending further research.
After that suspension was extended by six months, the IAAF returned to CAS in early 2018 with what it claimed was robust evidence that high levels of testosterone gave a game-changing advantage in track events between 400m and a mile.
Armed with this apparent proof, the IAAF introduced a revised testosterone limit of 5nmol/L but only for those events.
Those rules were meant to be introduced on 1 November 2018 but the IAAF has postponed the rule until CAS has made a ruling on Semenya’s challenge, which the court has promised by 26 March – six months and two days before the start of the 2019 world championships in Doha.
The love and support for Semenya has been immense worldwide. South Africa on the main is behind her and some of the sporting greats including Navratilova and Billy Jean King have backed her. Missing from the debate are voices from feminists and the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) communities.
Writing in Britain’s Sunday Times, the 18-times grand slam singles champion wrote:
“Leaving out sprints and longer distances seems to me to be a clear case of discrimination by targeting Semenya,” Navratilova wrote.
“And can it be right to order athletes to take medication? What if the long-term effects proved harmful?
“Semenya’s case will come up tomorrow before the Court of Arbitration for Sport. It is expected to last a week and the outcome is expected by March 29. I hope she wins.”
The IAAF may be able to fool some but it is abundantly clear for many that it is targeting Semenya. The only question is whether it’s because she’s black or just too powerful. But the bigger question is what happens if she loses the case? Will she take the medication, run with men or quit the game?