South African Track & Field athlete, Mokgadi Caster Semenya is a three-time world champion and two-time Olympic gold medalist in the 800 meters, but that’s not what she’s famous for. For nearly a decade, Semenya has been the subject of controversy, a victim of an egregious violation of privacy, and a direct target of discrimination on many levels. At the 2009 International Association of Athletics Federation (IAAF) world championships in Berlin, an 18-year-old Semenya dominated the field of top-tier 800 meter runners, winning with a gap of about 20 meters between first and second, drawing immediate scrutiny. Semenya’s time of 1:55:45 was over 4 seconds faster than her previous personal best, run only a month prior. Questions began to circulate, beginning with suspicions of drug use, and quickly after, her sex. Many felt if she was not cheating, then perhaps she wasn’t really a woman.
Semenya was lied to by Leonard Chuenemade, President of Athletics South Africa, about the nature of tests she was to undergo. The tests would be for sex verification — news that was quickly leaked to the press. Tabloids plastered check stands worldwide with crude headlines, debating Semenya’s sex.
In an attempt to quell the tabloid fodder, Semenya grudgingly consented to a makeover photoshoot for South Africa’s You magazine. The photographs feature Semenya smiling broadly, wearing an assortment of dresses. Some felt this PR stunt worked to further embarrass and insult the athlete, but Semenya herself seemed to shrug off the entire ordeal saying, “I see it all as a joke, it doesn’t upset me. God made me the way I am and I accept myself.”
Semenya was forced to withdraw from track for a year following her 2009 world championship win, waiting for the results of the sex test. The results would prove to only deepen the controversy. Semenya was revealed to have hyperandrogenism — a condition that impacts between 5% and 10% of women. Additional leakage revealed that the condition was linked to an intersex condition. This deeply personal and confidential information should never have been leaked. Many in the track & field community came out in support of Semenya, including 1996 Atlanta Olympic star Michael Johnson, saying, “the consensus is that it is highly unfair and embarrassing to the athlete.”
She was cleared to participate in June of 2010, but the controversy was far from over. Semenya would receive hostility on the track from a small number of athletes who felt she should not compete, including Russian athlete Mariya Savinova, who was seen sneering at Semenya before a race. Semenya would finish second to Savinova in both the 2011 World Championships, and the 2012 London Olympics, only for Savinova to have both gold medals removed after she was discovered to be part of the Russian program of systematic doping in 2015.
Despite the injustice done to her by the IAAF for leaking her private information, and the hostility she received from a handful of fellow athletes, Semenya is well-known for being a great sportswoman, encouraging others, and taking the time to congratulate all the athletes in her race. The IAAF had cleared Semenya for competition, and has maintained consistently that Semenya has never cheated, but they decided to “level the playing field” by requiring Semenya to take testosterone blockers, which caused a notable change to her physique and performance. Many supporters of Semenya decried the enforcement of femininity upon the body, and considered the decision to be in fierce contrast to the mission of international sports: inclusion, diversity, and truly exceptional athletes.
At the peak of her career, from age 21 to 23, Semenya would remain on testosterone blockers, and although she remained among the top runners in her event, she failed to eclipse her top times run in previous years. Then, in 2015, the IAAF made a surprise announcement and suspended the ruling requiring testosterone blockers for female runners following the case of fellow intersex runner, India’s Dutee Chand’s appeal. No longer on the drugs that suppressed Semenya’s potential, she came back with a fury.
In 2016, Semenya became the first person to win the 400m, 800m, and 1500m titles at the South African National Championship. Semenya secured the gold in the 800m at the Rio Olympics, making this her second Olympic gold in the event. Immediately following the event, fellow runner Lyndsey Sharp of Great Britain (who placed 6th) burst into tears, crying, “Everyone can see it’s two separate races so there’s nothing I can do.” Adding overt racism to the situation, 5th place finisher Joanna Jóźwik declared herself the “first European” and “second white” to finish the race.
Semenya continued to shrug off the tears and jeers of others, and maintained her outward display of warmth towards her fellow competitors. Semenya gave this statement, following her epic 2nd Olympic win:
“It’s all about loving one another. It’s not about discriminating people. It’s not about looking at people [and] how they look, how they speak, how they run. You know, it’s not about being muscular. It’s about sports. When you walk out of your apartment, you think about performing. You don’t think about how your opponents look. You just want to do better. I think the advice to everybody is to go out and have fun.”
In January of 2017, Semenya married her longtime partner, Violet Raseboya and went on to win gold in the 800m and bronze in the 1500m at the 2017 IAAF World Championships in London. Semenya seemed to have finally cleared the controversy that had trailed her for nearly a decade, until last week.
On April 26, 2018, the IAAF announced “new eligibility regulations for female classification,” as a resolution to the ongoing debate regarding female athletes with “higher than normal” levels of testosterone. The new rules require:
(a) she must be recognised at law either as female or as intersex (or equivalent);
(b) she 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
( c)thereafter she must maintain her blood testosterone level below five (5) nmol/L continuously (ie: whether she is in competition or out of competition) for so long as she wishes to remain eligible.
For women who do not lower their testosterone levels, they will be barred from international competition, or they will have the option to run with men. If there was any question as to whom these new rules were designed for, this new rule is only to be applied for female runners in the 400m, 800m, and 1500m — literally every race that Semenya competes in. The news was immediately met with outrage and protest, and the South African Athletics Association is actively working to repeal the rule change.
IAAF President Sebastian Coe said of the rule change,“We want athletes to be incentivised to make the huge commitment and sacrifice required to excel in the sport, and to inspire new generations to join the sport and aspire to the same excellence…“As the International Federation for our sport we have a responsibility to ensure a level playing field for athletes.”
Stop right there. If the IAAF wants to promote higher participation and inspire new generations of runners to join the sport, the best way to do that is to become more expansive and inclusive, not the opposite. The spirit of international sports seeks to find the best athletes from around the world. To disqualify exceptional athletes for being exceptional is antithetical with the IAAF’s stated message.
Additionally, if it is the IAAF’s goal to “ensure a level playing field,” then they would be wise to reexamine the current standing world records in the women’s 100m, 200m, 400m, and 800m. All of these records were set in the 1980’s, a decade riddled with doping violations. Jarmila Kratochvílová, of former Czechoslovakia broke the 800m world record back in 1983 in an unreachable time of 1:53:28. Semenya is the 8th fastest 800m runner in history, and at least 5 of the top 7 runners have been suspected of participating in state-sponsored Soviet doping in the 80’s.
Florence Griffith-Joyner, the 100m and 200m world record holder is often heralded as the fastest woman in history, with world record marks being far outside of any competitor’s reach for over 3 decades. Although she was never caught for doping, many have speculated that Griffith-Joyner doped to produce her times. She would retire immediately after the 1988 Seoul Olympics that made her a household name, and died from a seizure 10 years later at age 38.
These longstanding dirty records have made it so that for over 30 years, no woman has come close to breaking the world record in these four evens. This means that the hard work and sacrifice of many clean athletes has been compromised, yet the IAAF has made no move to address these questionable world records by highly suspected cheaters.
The IAAF’s new ruling is troubling for another reason. If it is the IAAF’s stated goal is to “ensure a level playing field,” that opens the door to other more overtly racist practices. A sizable group of athletes, mostly of European origin, have pushed for “Whites only” track and field leagues, as they believe that black people are naturally faster. Even 9 time Olympic gold medalist Carl Lewis stated, “The blacks, physically, are made better.” This, of course is not backed with any actual science, but there are enough people pushing to segregate black and white runners that there is cause for concern.
As the world continues to tilt towards conservative ideals, racist, sexist, and bigoted policies, and overt nationalism, those on the side of progress need to challenge these rules and continue to push for more inclusion. An average international track athlete’s career is roughly 12 years long, from ages 18–30. At 27, Semenya is nearing the end of her career, one way or another. For nearly a decade, she has dealt with relentless aggression and hostility, so much that a rule change seems to have been made especially for her.
This rule work to further alienate and discriminate against individuals who are born differently, enforcing rigid boundaries around the presentation of sex and gender, and promotes artificially altering the naturally occurring hormone levels in athletes. The IAAF as an international organization has a responsibility to consider the social implications of this new ruling, especially considering the current state of world human rights politics.
The new rule is to come into effect in November of this year, giving Semenya at least a full season to compete.