Caster Semenya: Runner, champion… guinea pig?

Hormone therapy might be slowing down South Africa’s star runner


Caster Semenya, who'll run the 800-m for South Africa, during the team's press conference in London, on July 27, 2012. (Roger Sedres/Gallo Images)

Caster Semenya wants nothing less than the happiest of endings. “The plan is to win the Olympics, that’s all. I have to win a gold,” the 21-year-old South African runner said right after qualifying for the Games in May. That was three years after she was temporarily banned from racing following a flurry of speculation over her gender. Now, though, the very hormones she has to take to satisfy the authorities she’s woman enough to compete might spoil her Olympic dream.

In 2009, Semenya’s athletic debut degenerated into nightmare. At 19, she had won the 800-m event at the World Championships in her first international competition. She soared over the finished line a full two seconds—it might as well have been mile—ahead of her nearest rival, then wagged her finger, flexed her arms and grinned sheepishly. Some whispered about the newcomer’s deep voice, sculpted biceps and jaw line. A fellow competitor who finished sixth in the race voiced her doubts with unapologetic brutality: “These kind of people should not run with us. For me, she’s not a woman. She’s a man.”

Semenya’s humiliation escalated in stages. First, the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) subjected her to extensive gender testing, what she once recalled as “unwarranted and invasive scrutiny of the most intimate and private details of my being.” Then, she was suspended from further competition. South Africans, proud of their champion, cried foul. Even Nelson Mandela rallied behind her. In the end, she kept her gold medal, and, after 10 months of exile from the track, she was cleared to resume her career as a runner.

Yet unwanted scrutiny remains. Last year, Semenya won a silver at the World Championships in the 800-m. This year, her form has noticeably slumped. Her fastest time is 1:59.58, more than four seconds off her personal 2009 best of 1: 55.45. Why? It might have to do with the IAAF’s new guidelines for gender verification. Adopted in April 2011, largely in response to the Semenya gender debacle, they establish that female athletes now have to fall below a certain threshold of testosterone. For many female athletes, including Semenya, the Toronto Star reports reports, the new eligibility criteria mean compulsory hormonal therapy.

In principle, this is about creating a level playing field, but critics have bristled. “There is enormous pressure on sports governing bodies to find a clear, objective way to say this person is male and this person female,” says Dr. Katrina Karkazis, a medical anthropologist at Stanford University, who recently co-wrote a critique of the new policy with Rebecca Jordan-Young in the American Journal of Bioethics. “The problem is that the body doesn’t work this way. No marker is present in all males or females. But they felt it is better to do something, even a wrong thing, even an arbitrary thing, than nothing.”

“Will there be effects [from the treatment]?” asks Jordan-Young. “Yes, possibly tremendous ones. You will have people saying, ‘Oh look, the times are down.’ Well, hell yes they’re down. All productivity will be down after a major disruption to your body’s system.”

What’s making Semenya more of a woman in some people’s eyes, it seems, might be breaking her as an athlete just as she steps on the grandest athletic stage of all.


Caster Semenya: Runner, champion… guinea pig?

  1. Go castor make us proud

  2. There’s no marker present in all males or females? Ever heard of the “Y” chromosome?? Caster’s disorder is rare and she deserves our respect, and the right to live her life as she chooses. But as a person with a “Y” chromosome, she has to be considered male for athletic purposes.

      • Seriously? A semi-literate Wikipedia article?? LOL

        • It’s not semi-literate….you are.

          • Very witty, Emily! I think I shall curl up in a ball and cry now. BTW if you ever get an interest in facts you can look up the fact that Caster is in fact an XY person with a form of hermaphroditism. I wish her well in life.

          • Wikipedia has the same error rate as Britannica….and I’m sure you can read the original source material given….instead of expecting everyone to take your word for it.

    • Among other variations, the SRY-gene can end up on an X-chromosome – and as it turns out, even this may or may not cause a “male phenotype”. Other causes of testosterone spikes during fetal development can trigger an XX-fetus to develop into what we’d consider a male baby. And then of course there are XXY-individuals, and so on.

      You do not know if Caster has a Y chromosome, since her results weren’t disclosed to the public.

  3. This is B.S. here we go with this dam white,Euro, male, Again creating rules to fit there satisfaction, imposed on society, to hell with the womans body. All she needs to do is go to the hospital for a series of test to prove shes a women. What if you took every male and made sure they had the same hormonal therapy. This sh#it is sexiest and wrong. God gave her that body, and if you look at that child from certain angles, you can see shes a woman. I’ve seen body builders look more like a man then she does, are they all to take treatment now. If this child breaks records, thats Gods doing, as long as shes a women. if she has the parts God gave her, what right do you have to punish her. Shame on all of you, put i’m speaking to the chour, these euro white male, think they know whats right for this whole world, why do you think it’s collapsings.

  4. I feel sad for Castor Semenya and what she has had to go thru. She was born a woman and lives as a woman and should be able to compete as a woman. Yes, she was born with male parts but that is not her fault. To think this was thrown around the world so that everyone knows about Castor. Maybe then in races, those with longer legs should be excluded as they might be deemed an advantage.

    So way to go Castor on your silver Olympic medal – a gold in most people’s eyes!

  5. .. it didn’t appear to slow Caster down, she sat at the back until the last 200m then ‘easily’ coasted by the other athletes … only getting her timing wrong (her words) stopped her getting the Gold … if Caster wanted to ‘she’ could have finished well ahead, but then her advantage would have been obvious. Once Caster sorts the timing out (and I’m not alone in this thought!) the others wont have a chance.