Every Olympic athlete has natural advantages – so why the witch-hunt against Caster Semenya?

Caster Semenya. Picture by Paalso Paal Sørensen. (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Jamie Thomas

For 10 years now people have done their absolute best to diminish the achievements of one of the premier track and field athletes of her generation.

Since bursting onto the scene in 2009 and winning 800m gold at the World Championships in Berlin, few people have had their integrity and success challenged as much as Caster Semenya.

In case you missed the news, the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) is implementing new rules for females with unusually high testosterone levels.

The rules mean that athletes like Semenya whose body naturally produces a relatively high amount of testosterone would have to subject themselves to hormone therapy to compete in the women’s events moving forward.

But only in certain events from 400m and up – which happen to be the disciplines the South African has or would be likely to compete in.

Semenya appealed to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) on the basis that the rules are discriminatory against her and other athletes with similar conditions and not backed up by sufficient scientific evidence – two assertions that the CAS agreed with in its Executive Summary in responding to the appeal earlier this week.

In March 2019, the United Nations’ Human Rights Council passed a resolution noting the new regulations “are not compatible with international human rights norms and standards, including the rights of women with differences of sex development” adding their concerns regarding “the absence of legitimate and justifiable evidence for the regulations.”

You’d think the appeal was upheld then, but no. The South African now faces having her womanhood and her dignity chemically butchered for the sake of… I don’t know what, actually. ‘Levelling the playing field’, if she wants to compete.

Talent

I don’t think there is any doubt in anybody’s mind that the South African does have a significant advantage over the rest of the field – testosterone does what it does, and your body being subjected to more of it produces a significant advantage in an athletic context.

Semenya’s body naturally produces more testosterone than other females, due to what is known as an intersex condition, meaning she was born with an anatomy that doesn’t necessarily fit class as male or female as tidily as some would like.

But it is important to stress that she is not transgender. She was born a female, has lived her entire life as a female, and would have been one of roughly 2,000 babies born every year with an intersex condition.

So genetically, she is – as the South African Government said in response to the CAS’ verdict – naturally superior.

She is naturally superior in the same way as Usain Bolt, who benefits from carrying the ACTN3 ‘sprinting gene’, which boosts his fast-twitch muscle fibres, and being a few inches taller than his fellow competitors.

But despite not being the same incredibly dominant force Bolt was, Semenya doesn’t seem to receive the same adulation.

However, she has tended to perform strongly, earning two Olympic golds and three World Championship golds at 800m. She is also only the third athlete to win both 800m and 1500m golds at the same Commonwealth Games – Wales’ Kirsty Wade was the first to do so in 1986, with Semenya following suit in 2015.

The South African has a comparable record to Kenya’s 800m runner David Rudisha, who is unanimously lauded as a generational talent, whereas Semenya’s success is just as impressive but isn’t nearly as revered.

Comparisons with the medal haul of Bolt is unfair as he’s competed across multiple disciplines unlike Semenya, but if you look at the 2009 World Championships where both won their first gold medals on that particular stage and trace their journeys since in the public eye, the perception of both couldn’t be more different. Bolt has been celebrated ever since, unlike Semenya.

What makes Semenya winning World Championship gold for the first time even more incredible though is that she did it after news broke three hours before the final took place saying she would be subjected to gender tests.

18 at the time, contesting her first major senior championship final, dealing with that before going out to compete in the biggest race of her live – what a woman. A woman can’t be that quick, she must be a man, was the post-race reaction from her competitors when Semenya took gold.

So attempting to rid Semenya of her dignity started long ago, but she’s a true champion who has continued to do what she does with a class her detractors can only dream of.

Witch-hunt

She does have a genetic advantage, but in a field where everyone competing at that level seems to have a leg up on mere mortals, surely genetic advantages should be considered the norm on such a stage of sporting excellence instead of being derided.

Physiological variables are what makes your Michael Phelps, your Usain Bolts etc so incredible, and it seems in most cases these advantages are accepted and celebrated, but why not in Semenya’s?

Is it because she doesn’t necessarily confirm to this mythical idea of what a woman should be? Or because no matter how many times obstacles have been put in front of her, Semenya has just continued to overcome them?

The IAAF said in a statement in February 2019 that they accept Semenya is legally a woman, just that she is producing more testosterone than a woman normally would:

“The IAAF is not classifying any DSD (Differences of Sexual Development) athlete as male. To the contrary, we accept their legal sex without question, and permit them to compete in the female category.

“However … to preserve fair competition in the female category, it is necessary to require DSD athletes to reduce their testosterone down to female levels before they compete at international level.”

With these new regulations coming into force will we see every athlete tested for DSDs, and intersex categories coming to the fore in major championships now?

If not, as seems like, is this just a witch-hunt against Semenya? It certainly feels that way.

Individuals and organisations far better placed than me have commented on the ramifications of this saga for women’s rights amongst other topics such as homophobia and racism, but speaking on a purely sporting level, this news is the latest in a saga of unjust scrutiny towards Caster Semenya’s career.

Chemically suppressing what this woman’s body naturally does to make others feel better about competing alongside her is not just plain wrong, but extremely dangerous too.

Diversity and integrity are probably the two biggest values in sport and nobody has embodied those qualities more than Semenya, in the face of a decade of derision that no athlete of her calibre has ever had to endure.

Her critics and naysayers can learn so much from her, and her sport has to do better for her.

Jamie Thomas’ book When Dragons Dare to Dream – Wales’s Extraordinary Campaign at the Euro 2016 Finals can be bought here for £9.99.


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