In light of Caster Semenya’s recent feature in Nike’s Birthplace of Dreams short film that documents her story from the dusty roads of the Ga-Masehlong village in South Africa, catch up with the athlete as we uncovered the trials and tribulations of her controversial sporting career.
Warning. Minefield ahead. In anything said (or written) about Caster Semenya, explosions can occur for those not properly educated in the school of political correctness. Tiptoeing is required, but that may not be enough even for the surest of foot.
The 28-year-old South African middle-distance runner has been locked in a battle with the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) since 2009, and the dispute is possibly the most complex, controversial and emotive that has hit sport in many years. Not surprisingly, it has divided – nay, polarised – opinions, and it’s not settled yet.
Semenya is a superb athlete. In 2009, she struck gold in the 800 metres at the World Championships in Berlin. Questions were asked immediately after her triumph, as it was noted that her winning time was four seconds faster than her previous best.
According to the IAAF, she was consistently making “the sort of dramatic breakthroughs that usually arouse suspicion of drug use.” Eyebrows were kept raised for the length of time it took the IAAF to insist that she undergo a gender identification process.
As far as external “performance-enhancing drugs” were concerned, she was clean, and always has been, but the governing body claimed that they wanted to determine whether she had a “rare medical condition” that gave her an “unfair advantage” over other competitors. The tests were carried out, and Semenya was rendered ineligible to compete on the international stage for 11 months.
While many on the African continent were up in arms – claiming racism and even violations of civil and human rights – some of the rest of the world felt that the IAAF’s actions were justified, especially after it was revealed that Semenya was born with XY chromosomes. Females, typically, have a pair of X chromosomes, while males have two different kinds, X and Y.
As any geneticist will tell you, it’s not simply a case of XY = male, and XX = female. Approximately one in 20,000 men has no Y chromosome, and there is a similar incidence with women who are XY instead of XX, for a variety of reasons.
A multitude of other genes determine the actual sex of a person. Caster Semenya is a woman with a Y chromosome, and this means that she has external female genitalia, and internal male genitalia – the latter accompanied by the naturally occurring levels of testosterone that they produce.
She’s never tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs, but some of her competitors (and, more importantly, the most powerful governing body in athletics) have insisted that she is “biologically male” and, therefore, has an inequitable advantage over other female athletes.
The IAAF may feel as though they have had the last word, and perhaps their motivation – ostensibly egalitarian in nature – should not be called into question. The federation has definitely not emerged from this particular minefield unscathed, but there is strength in numbers and a depersonalisation when it comes to edicts issued from governing bodies.
For Semenya, unfortunately, it’s all too personal. In the spirit of balance and avoiding detonation, therefore, let’s leave the last word(s), for now, with the athlete herself.
“I am Mokgadi Caster Semenya. I am a woman, and I am fast.”
This article is an excerpt from UNRESERVED’s September 2019 issue from the article CASTER SEMENYA: MYTH OR MISTER?