Caster Semenya: Too Manly To Be a Woman

Caster Semenya, an athlete from South Africa has lost a landmark case wherein she was fighting for her right for privacy and her human rights. With this judgment, not only Semenya has lost all hopes but other athletes of same sexual development have lost their direction for the aims they have in life.

On May 1st, 2019, the Court of Arbitration for Sports (CAS) had rejected her plea to strike out the new rule which stated that athletes with a ‘higher than normal’ testosterone level will have to undergo medication to restrict the hormone level in their body. It said, “athletes with differences in sexual development have a higher level of testosterone and are believed to give others a competitive advantage”. It meant that her body produces more male sex hormones than most females.

The constant scrutiny in her medical history reveals what happens to women, especially black women who don’t conform to gender roles and stereotypes. According to a report in Wired, Women are willing to compete in international competitions at distances of between 400 meters and one mile will have to restrict their blood testosterone level at least six months before the event.

The Sex Verification Controversy, Since 2009…

Caster Semenya, a South African middle-distance runner, and a gold medalist had been a star in the 2009, 2011 and 2017 World Championships in the 800 meters and 2012 and 2016 Summer Olympics. With the African Junior Championship in 2008, Semenya won both 800 and 1500 m races and improved her 800 m personal best by seven seconds in less than nine months. It was a national record a championship record. December 2009, she got voted the Number One Women’s 800-meter runner of the year by Track and Field News.

Following her victory at the championships, there were questions raised on her sex. The combination of her rapid athletic progression and her appearance culminated in the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) asking her to take a sex verification test to ascertain whether she was a female.

Caster Semenya and her lawyer arrive for a landmark hearing at the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) in Lausanne, source: Getty

Sex verification in sports is the verification of eligibility of an athlete to compete in a sporting event which is limited to a single sex. The issue has arisen multiple times in Olympics and other sporting competitions where it has been alleged that male athletes attempted to compete as women, or that a woman has an intersex condition giving an unfair advantage. The IAAF conducted a sex test for her which was never officially revealed in public but the results are said to be leaked and Semenya is claimed to have intersex traits.

In November the same year, South Africa’s sports ministry issued a statement which said Semenya had agreed with the IAAF to keep her medal and awards. She was later in the next year cleared to play again and compete in the women’s championships. The way IAAF handled the case brought about many negative reactions from the public. A number of athletes criticized the organization for its response to the incident. South Africans additionally outraged alleging embedding of European racism and imperialism. The local media reports highlighted the frustrations and challenged the validity of the tests believing that through Semenya’s testing, members of the Global North did not want the Global South to excel in anyways.

IAAF has denied the charges of racism and expressed regret about ‘the allegations being made about the reasons for which these tests are being conducted. The federation explained that the test was conducted not with the motive of proving her to be cheating but a desire to determine whether she had a rare medical condition giving her an undue and unfair advantage over other female players.

In 2010, she was denied the opportunity of competing in the local Yellow Pages Series in South Africa because her reports were yet to be released. In September, the British magazine New Statesman included Semenya in its annual “50 People That Matter” for instigating an international debate on gender politics, feminism, and race, becoming an inspiration to gender and race campaigners globally. In the wake of her case, testosterone testing was introduced in 2015 to identify cases where testosterone levels were elevated above a particular level, termed hyperandrogenism.

2018 saw the testosterone rule change which required athletes with Hyperandrogenism ( excessive levels of androgens i.e. male sex hormones such as testosterone in the female body ) to take medication to lower their testosterone levels. The scope in the rule was too narrow to deny that the change was specifically made to target Semenya.


But the Court of Arbitration for Sport rejected her challenge on May 1 this year with new rules coming in effect from the 8th of May, 2019. This means now the federation will be able to restrict the testosterone level in female athletes in order to be ‘fair’.  Her lawyer expressed that this should be considered her ‘genetic gift’ and it should be celebrated. She said, “Women with differences in sexual development have genetic variations that are no different than other genetic variations in sports.”

In an interview with The New York Times, Dr. Eric Vilain, a medical geneticist provided a thoughtful voice on the issue and said, “We’re moving towards a big competition, and the very predictable result of that competition is that there will be no women winners.” Other commentators pointed to statements by losing competitors as evidence of discriminatory treatment.

India’s case

A similar controversy like Semenya arose in India in 2014, when Dutee Chand an athlete from Odisha and a gold medalist at Asian Junior Athletics Championships in 200 meters was hoping to get qualified for the Commonwealth Games but Athletic Federation of India (AFI) dropped her saying, “hyperandrogenism made her ineligible to compete as a female”. Though there were no suggestions that Chand had been caught in doping or cheating, the actions by IAAF and AFI were widely criticized as a human rights violation. She appealed to the CAS and because till that time, there was no evidence that testosterone increased female athletic performance, The CAS notified the IAAF that it had two years to provide the evidence. This, therefore, removed the suspension of Chand from the competition.

Her issue was made public which made everyone angry because this might lead to her reputation getting tarnished. “They have tested her at the last minute, humiliated her and broken her heart,” Santhi Soundarajan told in an interview. She felt that the matter could have been dealt with discreetly. She expressed, “Now if she re-enters the sports field, things will not be normal even if she takes treatment.”

Source: AP

Semenya’s case is an explosive mix of issues: fairness in sports, what if it was a man in her place? What if she wasn’t black? It demonstrates how Biological features can be elegantly chosen to sideline complex issues that deserve wider social and ethical attention. Her human rights were being violated with testing her sexual orientation and this case was an affront to her privacy, and privacy of other players with ‘not so gender oriented’ sexual presentation. This proves that her biology has been a hindrance in her career. They talk of ethics which led to removing her from the ‘normals’ list, but what is more unethical is to single out a characteristic that nature has dealt them.

Harshita Malik
Harshita Malik

Trained in journalism, fights for gender and human rights issues. Open to talks and criticism. Believes in individual wishes and opinions. A mediocre reader of non-fiction.

No Comments Yet

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Give us a tip

Share some exclusive stories and get credit

Looking for a website? Let it be a company website or a portfolio one, we got you covered. Let’s talk about your requirements or something about that brewing web idea in your mind. 

© 2019 CodeSteak LLP


Subscribe to our newsletter for regular updates.