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Too Fast To Be A Woman?

Second in the sports women series is South Africa's Caster Semenya

BY Agnes Amondi

Jul 30, 2021, 02:23 PM

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It was in the Berlin World Championships in 2009, when Caster Semenya shot to global prominence. She had just run the fastest time of that year at 1:55:45 in the blue tartan track of the Olympiastadion.

Born in Polokwane, South Africa, she would go on to dominate her field. She’s the two-time women’s 800m Olympic champion, a three-time 800m world champion and a double Commonwealth Games middle distance gold medallist. 

But her career has been defined by two things: Winning races and defending her identity as a female.

In The Eye Of The Storm

At only 18 years of age, Semenya found herself in the middle of an identity debate. On the eve of the 800m World Championship final event in Berlin, World Athletics at the time IAAF put her under sex verification tests.
They argued it wasn’t a mandatory procedure but one that was only done upon suspicion of her eligibility to compete in women’s events. Eventually, she was allowed to compete and won. 

The tests ought to have been something discrete, IAAF said. However, it was anything but discrete. The story dominated the headlines and ever since, Semenya’s been left fighting for her career as well as having to deal with a private matter, quite publicly.

What’s The Fuss?

I’m not a sports scientist, a gender expert or a medical professional for that matter but it would be a disservice not to at least highlight why Semenya’s case has elicited such controversy. I’ll explain this in the simplest way possible. Here we go.

What’s the claim? That Caster has a competitive advantage borne out of her abnormally high naturally occurring levels of testosterone, a condition defined as hyperandrogenism

Why is this an issue? Because World Athletics and other athletes see this as a fairness problem. How so? As per World Athletics, testosterone is a performance determinant thus her high levels gives her an upper hand. It influences the outcome of her race. 

What does the law say? Well, this is a very tricky issue which is why there hasn’t been consensus on this matter. In 2011, World Athletics introduced regulations to bar female athletes like Semenya from competing unless they have a medical intervention that will lower their levels of testosterone.   

What was Caster’s response? She has publicly stated that she will not take any medication to lower her naturally occurring high levels of testosterone.

This is a very complex subject so if you’re getting confused, don’t worry. That’ll be it for now. There are tons of detailed materials online about this. So if you feel inclined, check them out. But first, stick with me till the end. 

Down But Not Out

“Whoever is going to stop me from running is going to have to drag me out of the track.” 

Ahead of the Tokyo Olympics, she has sought the audience of the European Court of Human Rights for what might really be her last push to get World Athletics rules on testosterone medication overturned.

She’s been to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) and the Swiss Federal Court to fight for her rights to run. However, she lost both appeals at CAS in 2019 and in Switzerland to get those regulations overturned.

As it stands, she has to have medical intervention to run in her preferred distances of 800m and 1500m events.

As the ruling from the European Court of Human Rights awaits, she’s trying to qualify for the Tokyo Olympics via the 5000m event.

Resilience In Adversity

Caster has always projected a strong and confident image throughout this entire controversy. Whenever she’s been asked about the severity of the scrutiny she’s faced, she’s said things like “I’m a happy soul” and that “it’s good to fight for people.”

It obviously gets to her because she’s only human but it’s the way she handles it. She’s clear about what her target is and doesn’t mince her words. She’s made it absolutely clear that she’ll remain in the sport. 

“I feel like I’m not yet done. I still feel fresh. I still feel young. I cannot walk away If I feel like I can still do this thing.” she said.

As to racing, it has never stopped despite her being in and out of court. When confronted about the uncertainty of her future, she puts it bluntly.

“I can run any distance I want. I don’t have time for nonsense. There will be people who’ll always provoke you but I’m always going to stay positive. I am an athlete and the only thing I focus on is my performance.”

Born This Way

Semenya is very outspoken when it comes to self-acceptance. She’s demonstrated this by refusing to undergo any medical procedures to align with the World Athletics rules. She’s constantly talked about running naturally, just the way she was born.

Are you wondering what she’s had to say about this? Here are some interesting quotes.

“They laugh at me because I am different. I laugh at them because they are all the same.” 

“I’m a woman. You want to change me. It’s wrong. I was born the way I am. I cannot change. It must get into their heads that I’m never going to change for them.”

To this end, she’s partnered with companies like Nike and brands like Lux to enforce this message.

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