Caster Semenya: Sport’s unanswerable question

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Ever since she burst onto the scene with a stunning victory at the 2009 World Championships, Caster Semenya’s career has been characterised by scrutiny and intrusion. Cahal McAuley takes a look at her career and where Semenya is now after the latest World Athletics' ruling.

Although she won gold in the 800m at both the London 2012 and Rio 2016 Olympic Games, her achievements have been largely overshadowed by her life off the track. Semenya was raised and identifies as female, but was born with a rare genetic condition classified under 46 XY ‘disorders in sex development’ (DSD). Having two different sex chromosomes  (XY) is typically associated with males and Semenya, like other similarly classified athletes, tend to have higher levels of testosterone than those who possess the XX chromosomes found in most females.

The latest World Athletics rule change bans DSD athletes such as Semenya from taking part in the women’s division over distances from 400m to a mile, without taking medication to bring their natural testosterone levels below the required threshold. This means, as things stand, Semenya will not be permitted to compete for a third consecutive gold medal at the Tokyo Olympics in her strongest event, without agreeing to this hormonal therapy, as the 800m race falls within this restricted category. 

Due to her glittering career and continued opposition to the World Athletics’ decisions, Semenya has become the figurehead of the controversy, but she is far from being the only high performing athlete affected by the rulings. In 2019, both of Semenya’s fellow podium finishers at Rio 2016, Burundi’s Francine Niyonsaba, and Kenya’s Margaret Wambui, revealed that they also had XY chromosomes and have had their eligibility to compete in the women’s division questioned. 

These events have sparked the debate over whether athletes such as Semenya should be allowed to compete in the women’s division as many claim their genetic traits give them an unfair advantage over the vast majority of women in the division. With all three podium positions in Rio having been won by DSD athletes, it is difficult to argue these women do not have an advantage over the rest of the division. However, there are glaring problems with the World Athletics’ response to the issue.

The first is with the issue of sex testing of athletes. Following her incredible win at the 2009 World Championships, an 18-year-old Semenya was quickly requested to take a sex verification test to prove that she was female. Rumours and leaks in confidentiality meant that Semenya’s first world championship victory was overshadowed by suspicion and scrutiny surrounding her sex. 

Currently, sex testing is arbitrarily carried out based on physical appearance. If sex testing is to be carried out it must be done by all athletes and not just those who do not fit society’s standard definition of ‘womanlike’. These tests must also be carried out with a level of discretion which has never been given to Semenya.

An even greater issue with the World Athletics’ recent actions is their offering of testosterone suppressing medication to Semenya and other athletes. This potentially harmful medication is nothing more than sanctioned doping and unsurprisingly Semenya is refusing to take it. 

World Athletics asking athletes to take medication to reduce their performance levels to be able to compete is wholly unethical and avoiding the issue at hand. The current problem was not created by Semenya and athletes like her being born different, the issue comes from the flawed system of classification of athletes.

To ensure a level playing field and the integrity of the women’s division, perhaps athletes like Semenya should not compete in the women’s division. Regardless, all athletes deserve to compete at their full ability, without having to take drugs to lower their natural sporting potential.

Semenya has unsuccessfully challenged World Athletics’ ruling, most notably in the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) and most recently in the Swiss Federal Supreme Court. Although there are still more legal avenues her team can use to try and overturn these verdicts, the effect this current ruling will have on DSD athletes and the women’s division as a whole remains to be seen. 

Of course, this is an incredibly difficult situation, but World Athletics’ response still leaves much to be desired. Not much is certain in this complicated debate but one thing that is clear is that suppressing athlete’s performance through drugs is not the solution. Alternate competition formats, perhaps a new intersex division, could be considered.

For over a decade, Caster Semenya has been hard at work on two fronts, excelling on the track to become a two time Olympic and three-time world champion. But she has also had to fight to defend her identity from intense scrutiny, face lies about the purpose of tests being performed on her and face repeated instances of misgendering from the media.

Through all this Semenya has carried herself with grace and dignity, refusing to give up her fight to compete and in the process becoming a hero to many in South Africa and around the world, which makes hers and others situations so frustrating to witness and this question so difficult to answer.