“I am Mokgadi Caster Semenya. I am a woman and I am fast.”
So said the reigning Olympic champion in the women’s 800-meter last year, in a statement challenging rules that could threaten her athletic career.
The rules, issued by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) require some female runners whose bodies produce high levels of testosterone to take medication to lower those levels. Many saw the rules as a direct effort to target Semenya, who is believed to have a condition that produces high testosterone. The runner appealed the new regulations, but on Wednesday, the Court of Arbitration for Sport ruled against her.
Semenya’s story is about the ongoing efforts by sports governing bodies to develop gender divisions that are fair to all athletes. But it’s also about what happens when an athlete — especially a black athlete — doesn’t conform to other people’s ideas about womanhood.
“Certain bodies are never allowed to be female, are never allowed to be women, are never allowed to just be,” Pidgeon Pagonis, an intersex activist and co-founder of the Intersex Justice Project, told Vox. “What I think this comes down to is, Caster’s faster than white girls and she made them cry.”
Semenya, who is South African, identifies as a woman and has never publicly discussed her medical history. But ever since she arrived on the global scene a decade ago, she’s been subject to constant scrutiny, as the media, the public, and her fellow athletes speculated about her anatomy, misgendered her, and argued that she shouldn’t be allowed to race against other women. Her career is a reminder that when people challenge received ideas about masculinity and femininity, their bodies can become fodder for public discussion — often against their will.
Semenya has been scrutinized ever since 2009
Caster Semenya, as she is usually known in the press, first gained worldwide attention in 2009, when she competed in the 800 meters at the world championships in Berlin. She was 18 years old.
Even before her first race in Berlin, though, others in the track and field world began questioning her gender. A source told the Daily Mail at the time that her “astoundingly quick performance” at a prior event in Mauritius had “prompted suspicions over her gender.”
“Experts were concerned over the way she runs and urged the South African athletics body to test her,” the source said.
The issue seemed to be that Semenya appeared masculine to some observers, and that she was fast.
Semenya went on to win gold in Berlin, but she was also subjected to a battery of tests by the IAAF designed to determine whether she should be allowed to race as a woman. The testing was leaked to the press, and Semenya’s body was analyzed relentlessly by armchair gender experts around the world, as Ruth Padawer reported at the New York Times.
“Could This Women’s World Champ Really Be a Man?” Time magazine asked.
“These kind of people should not run with us,” said one of Semenya’s competitors, Italian runner Elisa Cusma. “For me, she is not a woman. She is a man.”
The IAAF did not release the results of the tests, but media outlets began reporting on alleged leaks, fueling even more speculation about Semenya’s private medical information. Australia’s Daily Telegraph newspaper claimed that Semenya was a “hermaphrodite,” a term that the Intersex Society of North America deems stigmatizing and misleading. A BBC correspondent said in 2009 that Semenya had “testosterone levels that are three times higher than those normally expected in a female” and that “it’s likely that she has some hermaphroditic or intersex condition.”
“There has a lot of hype and sensationalization in the media, making this assertion that Caster’s a man who’s trying to compete with women,” Sean Saifa Wall, a co-founder of the Intersex Justice Project, told Vox. “It’s a lot of fear-mongering.”
Semenya was eventually allowed to run again, and went on to win gold in the 800 meters in the 2012 and 2016 Olympics. But last year, the IAAF ruled that runners with testosterone above a certain level would have to take medication to lower it in order to compete against other women in the 400, 800, and 1,500-meter events.
Semenya has not stated that she has high testosterone. But she and others saw the regulation as directed at her. “I know that the IAAF’s regulations have always targeted me specifically,” she said in a statement to the Washington Post. Semenya has not responded to Vox’s request for comment.
The runner appealed the ruling, but on Wednesday, the Court of Arbitration for Sport denied the appeal.
It’s not clear if Semenya plans to take testosterone-lowering medication in order to compete in the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, according to the Post. Her lawyers have said they will consider appealing the court’s latest ruling.
For her part, Semenya says she is undaunted. “For a decade the IAAF has tried to slow me down, but this has actually made me stronger,” she said in her statement to the Post on Wednesday. “The decision of the CAS will not hold me back. I will once again rise above and continue to inspire young women and athletes in South Africa and around the world.”
Her story demonstrates the discrimination people face when they seem to defy gender norms
Semenya has never publicly identified as intersex, a term that, according to the Intersex Society of North America, refers to a person born with “a reproductive or sexual anatomy that doesn’t seem to fit the typical definitions of female or male.”
No matter what her personal medical history is, her story illustrates the way people, especially people of color, can be scrutinized when they seem to fall outside gender norms.
Being intersex is not the same as being trans, but society at large tends to conflate the two, Pagonis said. “And a lot of people hate trans people.”
Meanwhile, “I see a lot of intersex phobia that is heightened because she’s a black woman,” Pagonis added. “Had Caster been a gender-conforming, straight-identified white girl who just was faster than the other people, they would have never invaded her body” by demanding testing, they said.
“Her body was put on display” for Europeans “to look at it and to gawk at it,” Pagonis said, and Semenya’s treatment “reeks of that legacy.”
Gender divisions in sports are complicated. But the idea of testosterone testing has sparked a lot of criticism.
In denying Semenya’s appeal, the Court of Arbitration for Sport acknowledged that the IAAF testosterone regulations were discriminatory towards athletes with naturally high testosterone. However, the court ruled that “such discrimination is a necessary, reasonable and proportionate means of achieving the IAAF’s aim of preserving the integrity of female athletics,” according to the Post.
The question of how — if at all — to make gender divisions in sports has been much-discussed in recent years as more openly trans athletes compete and as intersex conditions become better understood.
When trans cyclist Rachel McKinnon broke a world record for women in her age group, for instance, she received a criticism from some fellow athletes and a torrent of online harassment. The IAAF’s decision to use testosterone as a standard replaced the organization’s previous policy, under which the organization retained the right to evaluate athletes if someone challenged their gender, according to the New Republic. This policy was criticized for discriminating against athletes based on appearance.
But experts have also criticized the testosterone standard, arguing that research on the effects of the hormone in female athletes is flawed. The available evidence does not convincingly show that high testosterone actually gives women an advantage in the 400-, 800-, and 1,500-meter races, bioethicist Silvia Camporesi and her co-authors Simon Franklin and Jonathan Ospina Betancurt wrote in a blog post at the British Journal of Sports Medicine last year.
Moreover, “the question of whether testosterone confers an advantage does not settle the question of whether an advantage would be unfair,” as Camporesi wrote in a statement to media in reaction the court’s verdict Wednesday.
Many physical characteristics give people an advantage in sports, advocates note, but no one demands that they change those characteristics.
Swimmer Michael Phelps has exceptionally long arms, which give him an advantage in his sport, Pagonis said. “But nobody’s suggesting that his arms should be shortened.”
Hormones and intersex conditions are treated differently because they relate to sex and gender, “which are such taboo topics in society,” Pagonis said.
Semenya and her legal team now have 30 days to appeal the court’s ruling. No matter what happens, Semenya has already shown that “she’s an amazingly resilient person,” Pagonis said, noting that the athlete often posts subtle digs at her critics on social media.
On Thursday, the athlete tweeted a meme reading, “They laugh at me because I am different. I laugh at them because they’re all the same.”