Olympic Champion. World Champion. The name Caster Semenya has dominated the headlines in Women’s Track and Field since 2009 where she won her first world championships title in the 800m. Unlike other athletes, it is not just Semenya’s victories that have adorned headlines, but the question of Semenya’s gender (and sex).
With the 2020 Tokyo Olympics on the horizon, much debate about Semenya, and other female athletes with hyperandrogenism, the IAAF tried to create a new, fair policy. The IAAF rule was reworked and reworded through 2018 and when it was released back in November, Semenya immediately appealed to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) stating that the ruling was unfairly written against her.
The IAAF policy was written for women with DSD (Athletes with Differences of Sex Development), specifically for the 400m to 1-mile events at international athletics competitions. Given then number of DSD athletes competing, it is understandable why Semenya might feel targeted—these are the events she’s competed in successfully since 2009.
As of today, a line has been drawn in the sand—again—when it comes to women competing in Track and Field. The CAS ruled that women with DSD had to limit their testosterone levels to 5 nmol/L; for reference, the normal female range is below 2 nmol/L. Typically, DSD women have testosterone ranges between 7.7 to 29.4 nmol/L; to be eligible to compete these women must be taking testosterone suppressing drugs for at least six months prior to competition. These women have until May 8 to comply in order to be able to compete at this year’s World Championships in Doha, Qatar.
Semenya has always believed that the IAAF has targeted her. It is hard not to deny that might be the reality given that the ruling only applies to events that Semenya has previously competed in. But Semenya is resilient. She’s an agent for change, and she’s not giving up. “The decision of the CAS will not hold me back,” she said. “I will once again rise above and continue to inspire young women and athletes in South Africa and around the world.”
I have the utmost respect for Semenya, for her world-class abilities and her capacity to stay positive during challenging times. Do I think it’s fair for my former middle-distance self and my current female teammates and friends to compete with Semenya? No. It’s not just the strength and power that higher levels of testosterone offer, but the ability to recover, as compared to those of us with lower testosterone. Having said that, I also do not think it’s fair to have Semenya competing with the men.
The Olympics is about bringing the greatest athletes together to compete, but it’s also about bringing the world together. Just because the Olympics has only had two categories until now does not mean we have to continue to have the same binary categories. Perhaps we are in an age where we can objectively talk about having more classifications, have a conversation on the difference between the words ‘sex’ and ‘gender,’ learn from the World of Para, and just generally be more kind to one another, because, ultimately, that brings out the best in us all.
Photograph by Getty Images.