It’s been nearly a decade since Caster Semenya arrived on the global stage.
After blowing away the field in the women’s 800 metres at the 2009 world championships as a teenager, the South African track star has added two more world titles and a pair of Olympic victories to her resumé.
But Semenya, who will run the 1,500 metres at the IAAF Diamond League season opener in Doha on Friday (CBCSports.ca, noon ET), has never truly been allowed to bask in her accomplishments. Her standing in the sport has never been fully recognized.
Instead, her achievements elicit doubt, even ridicule, from some of her opponents. And track officials appear to be looking for ways to stop her — most recently with controversial new rules that some experts say are aimed squarely, and unfairly, at the reigning Olympic champion.
Though she has identified as a woman her entire life, the 27-year-old Semenya is also considered intersex, meaning she was born with a reproductive or sexual anatomy that does not conform to traditional definitions of male or female. She has a medical condition known as hyperandrogenism, characterized by elevated levels of male sex hormones — such as testosterone — in the female body.
Since testosterone is one of the key ingredients contributing to an athlete’s strength and speed, many feel Semenya has an unfair advantage in her sport.
“She is a woman, but maybe not 100 per cent,” is how Pierre Weiss, a high-ranking official with the IAAF, track’s world governing body, put it in 2011.
Some of the loudest voices opposing Semenya have belonged to women who compete against her. After Semenya won both the 800- and 1,500-metre races in convincing fashion at last month’s Commonwealth Games, Australian runner Brittany McGowan suggested it wasn’t possible to keep up with her.
“It’s tough for a lot of women in the 800, 400 and 1,500 at the moment to compare ourselves and be judged by our governing bodies on those times,” McGowan said.
At the 2016 Rio Olympics, Poland’s Joanna Jozwik was even more pointed after finishing fifth in the 800 final. Francine Niyonsaba of Burundi and Kenya’s Margaret Wambui, who finished second and third in the race, respectively, have also faced questions about their powerful-looking physiques.
“It is a little strange that the authorities do nothing about this,” Jozwik said. “These colleagues have a very high testosterone level, similar to a male’s, which is why they look how they look and run like they run.”
In fact, the authorities have tried to do a lot. In 2012, the IAAF introduced a rule that capped testosterone levels at 10 nanomoles per litre of blood — at the lower end of the typical male range — for athletes competing in women’s events.
Though she hasn’t commented publicly on the matter, it’s believed that Semenya may have turned to hormone-suppressing drugs after the ruling, based on the way her results have ebbed and flowed.
At the 2012 London Olympics, where she was chosen to carry the South African flag into the opening ceremony, she finished second in the 800 by a wide margin to Mariya Savinova of Russia (Savinova was later caught doping and her result was disqualified, though her gold medal has yet to be officially reallocated; Semenya had also been the runner-up to Savinova at the 2011 worlds and is now recognized by the IAAF as the winner of that event). Semenya failed to meet the 800 qualifying standard for the 2013 world championships and was eliminated in the semifinals in 2015.
In July 2015, the Court of Arbitration for Sport ruled that the IAAF’s testosterone-limiting move was discriminatory and suspended it. The rule was challenged not by Semenya, but by little-known Indian sprinter Dutee Chand, who had been banned for having elevated levels of natural testosterone. After this, Semenya quickly regained her dominance and went on to easily win Olympic gold in 2016.
The IAAF, though, was given time to shore up its case and bring it back to the court. It was told to prove that athletes like Semenya with elevated testosterone levels have an advantage in the range of 10-12 per cent over other women.
It took nearly three years, but the IAAF responded last week with a new set of regulations for what it calls Athletes with Differences of Sexual Development (DSD) — backed by a study that was quickly called into question.
Under the new rules, which are set to take effect Nov. 1, in order to be allowed to compete in women’s track events between 400 and 1,500 metres, so-called DSD athletes must be recognized by law as either female or intersex and must maintain testosterone levels of five nanomoles per litre of blood or less.
“We want athletes to be incentivized to make the huge commitment and sacrifice required to excel in the sport, and to inspire new generations to join the sport and aspire to the same excellence,” said IAAF president Sebastian Coe.
But Katrina Karkazis, a Stanford University bioethicist who was involved in the Chand case and has written extensively about Semenya, says the IAAF’s move isn’t about aspiring to excellence — it’s about stopping Semenya.
She notes that the new rules allow Chand, for example, to compete in the 100 metres without suppressing her testosterone levels. The measures cover only middle-distance track events.
Previously, the IAAF had presented research that showed athletes with elevated testosterone enjoyed an advantage (between 1.78 and 4.53 per cent) in a number of events, including the 400, 400 hurdles, 800, hammer throw and pole vault.
Indian sprinter Dutee Chand successfully challenged a previous IAAF ruling that sought to limit testosterone levels.(Dibyangshu Sarkar/AFP/Getty Images)
The research did not find a significant advantage in the 1,500, which Semenya runs. But that distance still found its way into the new IAAF regulations, which are based on the findings of a 2018 study that has yet to be published or reviewed.
Also curious is the omission of sprint distances from the new rules. Karkazis sees this as an attempt by the IAAF to ensure that Chand does not have standing in the event of an appeal. The whole process would have to be restarted by a different athlete — one who competes in the disciplines addressed in the new regulations.
“They have circumvented that CAS process in order to allow themselves once again to release a regulation in advance of a transparent review of the evidence,” Karkazis says. “Now that won’t happen unless an athlete goes back [to the CAS to appeal].”
Karkazis and others who have argued before the CAS say Semenya may have a strong case against track’s governing body.
“The IAAF has a duty to show that there is a reasonable scientific basis for this rule,” says lawyer Paul Greene, who has argued numerous cases to the CAS. “To me, this rule is even more arbitrary in that it includes some events and not other events. It doesn’t make any sense to me. How could testosterone help a woman in the 400 or 800 but not in the 100 or 200?
“They were arguing just two years ago that a 100-metre runner couldn’t compete because her testosterone level was too high. Now, two years later, they are saying a 100-metre runner can compete. Maybe their science backs that up. Maybe they have new science and different studies. But I know just a few years ago, when they made similar arguments, they were rejected.”
Semenya, front, blew away the competition in the final of the women’s 800 metres at the Rio Olympics.(Pedro Ugarte/AFP/Getty Images)
The IAAF’s newest research concluded that a DSD athlete with elevated testosterone enjoys a nine per cent advantage over other women — short of the 10 per cent threshold the CAS asked for. The findings drew a correlation between an increase in testosterone levels and increases in both muscle mass and muscle strength, but Karkazis says that’s not enough.
“You have to show a performance difference,” she says. “Testosterone is related to athleticism, it does affect muscle mass, and no one is going to dispute that. But it’s irrelevant for the regulation at hand.
“You can have all of the muscle mass in the world and be significantly slower than the athlete next to you. Who is going to create a regulation that starts looking at muscle mass? It’s a proxy for athleticism, but it’s not a measure of performance.”
‘Injustices and atrocities’
With the science and motives behind the IAAF’s new regulations already facing scrutiny, a legal battle seems likely. Will Semenya, an apparent target of the rules, be the tip of the spear?
The IAAF has already faced a challenge from within. Steve Cornelius, a South African law professor, quit his position on the organization’s disciplinary tribunal in protest over the new rules. He took several shots at the IAAF in a scathing resignation letter that was addressed to Coe.
“The adoption of the new eligibility regulations for female classification is based on the same kind of ideology that has led to some of the worst injustices and atrocities in the history of the planet,” Cornelius wrote.
“How the IAAF Council can, in the 21st century, when we are meant to be more tolerant and aware of fundamental human rights, even contemplate these kinds of objectionable regulations, is a sad reflection on the fact that the antiquated views of the ‘old’ scandal-hit IAAF still prevails and that your promises of reform have been empty indeed.”
On Thursday, track and field authorities in South Africa said they were prepared to go to the CAS to challenge the IAAF’s new rules, calling them “skewed.”
Semenya, meanwhile, has a few words for her critics.
“I am 97% sure you don’t like me, but I’m 100% sure I don’t care,” read the text of a graphic she posted on her Twitter feed the day the new rules were announced.
A few days later she posted another one that read: “God made me the way I am and I accept myself. I am who I am and I am proud of myself.”