What is behind the hounding of Semenya?


What is behind the hounding of Semenya?

Once again, South Africa’s superb middle distance runner, Caster Semenya found herself in the crosshairs of the IAAF – ordered to bring down her levels of natural testosterone or face a ban. She has appealed and judgement is due to be delivered at the end of April, following a postponement this week. But, what is the real motive behind this targeting of one of the world’s best athlete? asks Clayton Goodwin.

Caster Semenya should be basking in the adulation of an exceptional record in dominating middle-distance running for a decade, and at 28 years old, looking forward to yet more years of triumph. Although she runs on the flat, the South African has faced, and continues to face, more hurdles than any specialist at that event.

For then the Court of Arbitration for Sport is due to deliver its judgement on her appeal against the ruling of the IAAF (International Association of Athletics Federations), the sport’s governing body, which would require her to bring down her levels of testosterone: the case was being heard at Lausanne as this story went to press.

Ever since she won the 800 metres gold medal at the Berlin World Championships in 2009, Semenya has been subjected to intense speculation and prurience.

I was fortunate to be in the stadium that hot August evening to see the then 18 year-old Caster power down the back straight leaving her competitors floundering in her wake. It was powerful – it was unusual – it was exceptional.

So exceptional, in fact, that even before the runner crossed the finish-line rumours about her gender had started to circulate.  Semenya was all woman, the sceptics agreed, but wasn’t she also ‘woman – plus’? It was a suspicion that her subsequent postures in victory, flexing her biceps (in a macho if not exactly masculine mode), have done nothing to dispel.

Ever since she won the 800 metres gold medal at the Berlin World Championships in 2009, Semenya has been subjected to intense speculation and prurience.

For a time Semenya was suspended from international competition while the IAAF and their medics argued about what was hyperandrogenism, or high natural levels of testosterone in women, and how it applied to her.

When she was allowed back on the track, Caster swept the board at her own 800 metres distance and challenged successfully at 400 metres and 1,500 metres. Ironically, she was awarded the 800 metres gold medal in the London Olympic Games of 2012 only because the only athlete who finished ahead of her, Mariya Savinova of Russia, was disqualified for illegal misuse of drugs.

Four years later at Rio de Janeiro the carping broke out afresh as the South African again garnered the winner’s garland.

“Everyone can see it’s two separate races so there’s nothing I can do” sobbed the sixth-placed British runner Lynsey Sharp. Referring to the other medallists on the podium – Margaret Nyairera Wambui of Kenya and Francine Niyonsaba of Burundi, both of whom have a ‘mannish’ appearance – fifth-placed Joanna Jo´z´wik of Poland claimed that she was the “first European” and “second White” athlete to finish the race.

The IAAF picked up on the cue and in April 2018 announced that, while conceding that Semenya was female, required that hyperandrogenous athletes should take medication to lower their testosterone levels from the beginning of November 2018.

Enhanced physical condition

It is understandable that Caster’s rivals should feel frustrated that one competitor’s enhanced physical condition gave her an unbeatable advantage – and Eunice Sum of Kenya who had dominated the distance during the Semenya’s absence must also have felt aggrieved. Those running against the exceptionally long-legged sprinter Usain Bolt would have experienced the same emotion.

It is something altogether different, however, for the authorities to have stepped in on one side of the argument. I accept their concern that tolerance of hyperandrogeneity, and its abuse, could produce athletics disciplines in which there were no, so-to-say, ‘regular women’ competitors.

And I am old enough to remember the similar brouhaha over the sisters Tamara and Irina Press of the Soviet Union in the 1960s and over Jarmila Kratochvi´lova´, the muscular Czechoslovakian, whose 800 metres world record set in 1983 is still the longest-standing track record in men’s or women’s athletics.

Sometimes, it must be admitted, there can be one performer whose physical advantage is such that competition is indeed unfair. In Bolt it was described as genius to be admired, but in Semenya, it has brought only opprobrium.

That the rule applies only to the middle-distances of 400 metres, 800 metres and 1,500 metres points the finger of censure squarely at Caster Semenya. Why hasn’t the scope been extended to sprinters and long-distance runners?

No wonder that Caster has appealed against the ruling – and she has been supported strongly by the South African government. If she is not successful, her international career could well have ended with her success at last year’s Commonwealth Games.

In Bolt it was described as genius to be admired, but in Semenya, it has brought only opprobrium

The IAAF argues that the “planned protocols” have been limited to distances between 400 metres and up to a mile because “performance advantage” of having higher levels of circulating testosterone are “most clearly seen” there.

Consequently, if they wish to remain eligible as a competitor some female athletes would have to reduce their blood testosterone levels to below a proscribed level for a continuous period of at least six months and then maintain it beneath that level – whether in or out of competition.

In backing Semenya’s appeal Tokozile Xasa, South Africa’s Minister of Sport and Recreation, said: “The world once declared apartheid as a crime against human rights, we once more call on the world to stand with us as we fight what we believe is a gross violation of human rights”.

The IAAF viewpoint

The IAAF see things from a different perspective, declaring that they are “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, if a DSD has testes and male levels of testosterone, they get the same increases in bone and muscle size and strength and increases in hemoglobin that a male gets when they go through puberty, which is what gives men such a performance advantage over women.

“Therefore, 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”.

That is all very well, but why am I not convinced? The authorities have had a long time to sort out this matter – at least since the Berlin Olympic Games of 1936 when gender in athletics was a major talking-point (though it was overshadowed by that of race).

Why now? Does the IAAF recognize that in Caster Semenya they have an athlete of sufficient international stature to ensure maximum publicity for their approach? That is an athlete of sufficient international stature who deserves to be remembered for the deeds on the track that gave her such prestige (and not for the legal wrangling off it). NA

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