Ever since she burst onto the scene in 2009, winning gold in the 800-meter world championships at the age of 18, Mokgadi Caster Semenya has infused the sport with a burst of new energy. She has become an unexpected role model along the way. As a double Olympic gold medalist and three-time world champion, and a winner of her past 29 races over the distance, Semenya until this week stood poised to change the face of the sport, as a proud, strong, gay black woman.
But Friday in Doha may be the last time Semenya gets to compete in her favorite event. Earlier this week, the highest international court in sport dismissed Semenya’s challenge to rules created by the global athletics governing body, the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), that would require her — deemed an athlete with differences in sex development — to take medication to reduce her testosterone level.
I get it. That might not mean much in a sport that can tend to seem a little boring to those outside of it. It is, after all, a bunch of people going around in circles. If you’re not concerned with seconds and inches, like I am, the excitement can be lost on you. But Semenya, with her kick and her tenacity, brings an excitement to the sport — one that’s hardly given much attention or broadcast time.
Running has always suffered from under-exposure — especially women’s running. While someone like Eliud Kipchoge is helping to change that by knocking away at the ever-elusive sub-2 hour marathon, and thereby bringing more eyeballs onto the sport, women’s running continues to be overlooked. Men’s world records fall, but women’s — well, some of them have held strong for over 30 years, and there isn’t half as much of the push in trying to take them down from sponsors and brands as there is to take down the men’s. For example, Nike’s Breaking2 attempt to shatter the world marathon record, which involved three of the world’s fastest men.
Semenya, who broke junior and senior records during her very first public meet a decade ago, was, it could be argued, on her way to breaking a world record that had been held since 1983 — in her specialty, the 800m. In her lay some hope of expanding what was previously thought impossible. And not just in the metrics.
In Semenya, those of us who spent most of our lives thinking we couldn’t be runners because we didn’t look like a traditional runner found a hero. We thought our legs too short or our bodies too big. Unlike Semenya, who grew up running, playing soccer at school and pounding the ground to get to and from school, I didn’t grow up a runner. But in Semenya, those of us who came to the sport late in life — as a hobby that’s changed our lives — saw strength. Yet it’s far more important than that. As a lesbian woman of color competing on a world stage, she provides a role model in a space where few like her have existed before.
But it’s been hard-fought. Along the way, she’s courted controversy because of it. This week was the culmination of years of the IAAF attempting to regulate her, because they feel her testosterone levels are too high. Last year, the IAAF introduced a new regulation for female athletes with “difference of sexual development” (DSD). Athletes with circulating testosterone of five nanomoles per liter of blood (5nmol/L) or above have to meet certain criteria if they wish to compete internationally. One criterion is that a DSD athlete must use medication to reduce their blood testosterone level to below 5nmol/L for a continuous period of at least six months. Semenya felt that the IAAF was targeting her, specifically, which is why she took it to the highest court in international sport. And on Wednesday, that court rejected her challenge. Even while finding the rules too discriminatory, it also said that they were “necessary, reasonable and proportionate.”
The IAAF believes female runners with high testosterone levels have an unfair advantage in events from 400m to the mile. In order to continue competing, Semenya would have to, under the IAAF’s regulations, be forced to take medication or even undergo surgery in order to compete.
Never mind the fact these surgeries and medications are expensive and have inherent risks, with potential negative long-term health effects. Forget, for a moment, the numbers, the percentages, the scientific terms and the acronyms of organizations involved in this. They want a woman to inject herself with hormones or undergo surgery to continue to compete in the sport in which she has revealed herself to be an impressive talent. The moment you ask a group of people to police a woman’s body, it becomes a human rights issue. How far does this go? How far do you take the invasiveness of trying to decide what talent is, and how you can physically test for it? Yes, this is an issue that has been going on for over a decade, but this week’s decision is hugely worrying.
The Foundation for Human Rights has decried the verdict, saying it is “deeply problematic” and that there is a fundamental flaw in the way in which the IAAF has approached the issue — saying this may indicate a potentially deliberate attempt to focus on attacking outstanding female athletes from developing countries. I should admit here, too, that Semenya is my kinswoman, and as a fellow South African, I have triumphed in her glory. But this is more than personal, and more than about what she has done for my country. It is about humanity. The UN’s Human Rights Watch has also slammed the decision. The deputy director for the program, Liesl Gerntholtz, says: “Women with intersex variations have the same right to dignity and control over their bodies as other women, and it’s deeply disappointing to see CAS uphold regulations that run afoul of international human rights standards,” adding that “in scrutinizing and excluding women competitors based on their natural hormone levels, the IAAF regulations stigmatize, stereotype, and discriminate against all women.”
Thankfully, many have come to Semenya’s defense, and she was rightly included in Time Magazine’s list of 100 Influential People for the impact she is having on the sport. But she should be celebrated for elevating the sport — for runners and non-runners alike — not for trying to prevent a body other than her own, trying to control her. It’s important that other female athletes should stand by her, for all that she is doing for the sport. But more importantly, whether you care for running or not, realize this goes beyond that, and rally beside Semenya as she decides how far to push her challenge and whether to appeal again.