Caster Semenya is a 27-year-old South African middle-distance runner who rose to prominence after winning the 800m at the 2009 World Championships at the age of 18 with consummate ease. The talk after her victory was not about Semenya’s age, or her impressive time of 1.55.45, but instead her sex. At this year’s Commonwealth Games, it is likely to be the same. Semenya has become the unfortunate ‘poster girl’ of a heated debate about gender in sports.

Suspicions were initially raised about Semenya, born and raised as a woman, because her femininity didn’t meet society’s idea of what a woman should be. Her deep voice and muscular physique conspicuously set her apart from athletes she competed against. That these attributes should arouse suspicions speaks of a binary attitude towards gender, when sex is clearly not divided into two neat categories. The IAAFs’ response to the issue was to place a limit on the level of testosterone which a woman was permitted to have in her system. Sex cannot be reduced to one hormone, although in sport it may be the best method we have. However, this limit was lifted in 2016 by the Court of Arbitration for Sport, allowing Semenya to compete without need for hormone therapy.

With Semenya’s success comes the death of women’s sport as we know it, according to critics of CAS’ ruling. They speculate that the next generation of female athletes will be selectively chosen, hyperandrogenous women. These fears are unfounded. However, the distinction between male and female sports exists to make competition as fair as it possibly can be. Without a distinction, there would be almost no female Olympians. The primary reason for this discrepancy is testosterone, which allows men to build greater muscle mass and recover from efforts more quickly. Although CAS ruled that testosterone was not performance enhancing, because some intersex women are unable to utilise the extra testosterone, for Semenya, this is not the case. She never got close to 2009’s 1:55:45 when the limit was in place, although did win silver at London 2012 behind a doper. Once the ban was lifted, Semenya began running 1:55s again, winning gold at Rio.

Clearly, Semenya’s treatment has been unacceptable and a violation of her dignity as a human. Subject to an invasive sex verification process, fans have referred to her by the personal pronouns ‘he’ and ‘it’, whilst sensationalist rumours have robbed her of her femininity. Some would argue that it is unethical to force medical treatment, such as hormone therapy, on anyone for non-medical reasons. There may be something in this argument, and there is no obvious answer to the problem. Caster Semenya is just unfortunate to be stuck in the middle of it.

Caster Semenya during World Championships Athletics 2009 in Berlin. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.