The Russian doping scandal dominated the build-up to the Rio Olympics, but it may be another type of controversy that dominates the aftermath. Later this week, Caster Semenya begins her 800-metres campaign, for which she is the outstanding favourite. The South African is only twenty-five years old, yet she has already been through more than most athletes will experience in a lifetime. Seven years ago, Semenya won her maiden world title. What came next was unprecedented and has followed the South African relentlessly.
In the aftermath of her 2009 world title, Semenya became one of the biggest stories in sport, though it was not her times on the track that were making the headlines. Questions about her femininity were raised and she was subjected to gender tests. The results were never made public, but according to reports in the Australian media they showed she had no womb or ovaries but internal testes. It was also reported that she had three times a woman’s normal level of testosterone. At the time of those tests, Pierre Weiss, the IAAF secretary general, said: “It is clear that she is a woman, but maybe not 100 per cent.”
The Semenya furore resulted in athletics’ governing body implementing an upper limit of testosterone for female athletes; any woman above that limit was required to take hormones to lower their testosterone levels. It was never confirmed if Semenya was on medication to regulate her testosterone levels, but in the years following the implementation of this rule – she won world silver in 2011 and Olympic silver in 2012 – she was not the dominant athlete she had been when she broke on to the scene as a teenager.
A ruling last year by the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) changed everything, though. Following a case involving the Indian sprinter, Dutee Chand, the rules that specified an upper limit of testosterone in women were suspended, allowing female athletes who were on testosterone-suppressing medication to come off it. Since CAS’s ruling, Semenya has been back to her imperious best. This season she has looked head and shoulders above any of her rivals. All indications are that she will storm to the gold when the 800 metres begins in Rio on Wednesday.
If she is victorious, as almost everyone predicts she will be, a whole new can of worms may be opened. Ross Tucker, the prominent South African sports scientist, has predicted that the aftermath of the Rio Olympics will be “messy” and it will be down to CAS’s 2015 ruling. He believes that the previous rule, with an upper testosterone limit, was appropriate and a line between male and female athletes must be drawn. Yet this is where things get tricky: where should that line be? After all, almost all athletes at the top of their field possess genetic advantages? Should Usain Bolt be penalised because he is taller than his rivals? Or because he possesses more fast-twitch fibres? Of course not. So why should Semenya be forced to chemically alter her natural state in order to compete?
There is no suggestion that Semenya’s elevated testosterone levels are anything other than natural. Yet a number of her opponents are displeased, to say the least, that she is allowed to compete. The problem lies in that fact that sport needs a dividing line between men and women, but it is generally accepted nowadays that gender is far more nuanced than a simple binary choice of male or female.
In the past few years, Semenya has become the face of hyperandrogenism and intersex athletes almost by default. She was picked out for gender testing as a result of looking “more masculine” than her peers, and she has been vilified and humiliated in the court of public opinion ever since. Semenya was only eighteen when this discussion regarding her gender began. It is verging on inhumane to ask a teenager to deal with such a scenario. What Semenya has been through is surely an infringement of her human rights. Whether you agree or disagree about her being allowed to compete, few would surely fail to sympathise with the way that she has been treated. It has been said that she holds back in races, stopping herself breaking the world record, because she does not want to become embroiled in a fresh controversy.
It is perhaps easier to feel for Semenya when looking in from the outside compared to being one of her direct competitors. Her peers are losing out on medals, prize money and titles to someone they see as having an unfair advantage. Yet a degree of objectivity is needed, and from some quarters this has been sadly lacking. Yes, Semenya has higher levels of testosterone – a hormone which is, indisputably, a performance-enhancer – yet she is not, in any way, shape or form, a cheat. Nevertheless she has been treated like a villain. Semenya has been put through more in the past few years than anyone should ever be asked to in the name of sport. The most concerning thing is that it is not even near being a closed case.
If she obliterates the 800-metres field in the coming week, sparks are likely to fly. People will ask whether she should have been running in Rio at all. The IAAF has said that it will challenge CAS’s 2015 ruling. They want an upper testosterone limit for females reinstated. So there is no end to this issue in sight.
Semenya has had her life turned upside down. The discussion about hyperandrogenism may be a valid one, but the South African should not be made to be the poster girl for it. It is hard to see how this issue will be resolved in a way that placates everyone. In fact, that seems like an impossible wish. And the saddest part of this story is that Semenya, a young woman who just wants to run, is in the very centre of a controversy that she never asked to be a part of in the first place.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Susan Egelstaff is an Olympic badminton player who competed at London 2012, as well as representing Scotland at three Commonwealth Games, winning two bronze medals. She retired in the aftermath of the London Games after a 12-year international career. Having written the occasional article for newspapers while still competing, she decided to try and make sports journalism a job. Susan is now a columnist and sports writer with The Herald, The Sunday Herald and The National and is a regular contributor on BBC Radio Scotland. Susan is also heavily involved with the Winning Scotland Foundation, a charity which helps children achieve their goals. Susan’s latest articles.