Caster Semenya, the South African accused of not being woman enough

South Africa’s Caster Semenya in the women’s 800-meter series at the London Olympics on August 8, 2012.

August 2009. Near the Olympic stadium in Berlin, a young woman seems lost. We even feel scared. All the spotlight is on her: at only 18 years old, Caster Semenya has just won the 800 meters of the prestigious World Athletics Championships.

But his fearful reserve is not due to this unexpected victory. It can be explained by the disconcerted, even suspicious look, that certain officials, journalists and anonymous people pose on the young lady from South Africa who stare at her like a curious beast.

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What do we blame Caster Semenya for? To have signed the best performance of the year (1’55”45) when a few months earlier, she painfully covered this distance in 2’11”98? For having outclassed the defending champion, the Kenyan Janeth Jepkosgei, who arrived two seconds after her? To have doped?

No. Just not to be… feminine enough, with her warm voice, her fluff and her extraordinary muscles, compared to the skinny physique of her opponents.

“Athlete with hyperandrogenism”

The International Athletics Federation (IAAF) confesses to having ” a visual doubt ” : what if this new nugget of the tracks was actually a man? Or a hermaphrodite? To dispel these doubts, the governing body ordered to carry out femininity tests. She immediately appoints a group of experts to investigate the genre of the prodigy.

These decisions scandalize South Africa. Its president Jacob Zuma denounces “Humiliation” of which Caster Semenya is a victim. For almost a year, she could not take part in competitions.

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It is now presented as a “Athlete with hyperandrogenism” : his body naturally produces a high amount of male hormones. At the London Games in 2012, the champion had the opportunity to take revenge for these annoyances by going for an Olympic title. To show his support and pride, the South African delegation made Caster Semenya the flag bearer of his country during the opening ceremony.

But the 800-meter final was not going to go as planned: after a sluggish start, the young woman spent a large part of the race in last position before accelerating to 200 meters from the finish. After overtaking six rivals, Caster Semenya finished second, far behind Russian Mariya Savinova.

Two Olympic gold medals

Her femininity, yet recognized, and her higher than average testosterone level continue to be a problem. The controversy over her gender drags on. Caster Semenya prefers to train than to fuel controversy. At the Rio Games in 2016, the South African finally conquered gold by crushing the final. The following year, she learned that her former competitor Mariya Savinova was suspended for doping: the Russian then lost her Olympic title obtained in London, which went to the young runner.

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After having fought on the tartans, against the times, his adversaries and the prejudices, Caster Semenya must face, in front of the courts, the IAAF. In 2018, the International Athletics Federation tightened its regulations concerning hyperandrogenic sportswomen. This requires them to undergo treatment to artificially lower their testosterone levels – by taking birth control pills daily, by injecting a hormone blocking product or by undergoing surgery – before being able to participate in any international competition.

This provision only concerns distances of 400 meters per mile (1,609 meters). “Why would I take drugs?”, she retorts with irony. I am a pure athlete. I am not cheating. They should focus on doping, not on us. “

No Olympics in Tokyo

Either way, the move prevents the two-time Olympic champion and three-time World Athletics gold medalist, now 30, from competing in the 800-meter Tokyo Games this year and defending her crown. She does not pay attention to let it go and multiplies legal remedies.

Unfortunately for her, the Court of Arbitration for Sport (TAS), located in Lausanne, validates the new regulations of the IAAF (now called World Athletics). On behalf of “Sports fairness”, the Swiss Supreme Court upheld the CAS decision. But on February 19, Caster Semenya appealed to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.

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“All we want is to be allowed to run free once and for all, like the strong and courageous women that we are and always have been”, she explained in a statement.

Deprived of his favorite distance, Caster Semenya still tried to qualify for the Tokyo Games by lining up for the 200 meters and then the 5,000 meters. But it has not reached the minimum.

Summary of our series “These Africans who made the Olympics”

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