Caster Semenya is the outright favourite to win the gold medal in the women’s 800m event at the Rio de Janeiro Olympics, but the South African athlete remains at the centre of controversy.
Semenya first caught the world’s attention in 2009, when, as a relatively unknown runner, won the gold in the 800m at the World Championships, with a blistering time of 1:55.45 in the final.
Shortly before that race took place, the story broke that the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) submitted her to gender testing, and it was revealed that she has a condition called hyperandrogenism, which means her testosterone levels are far higher than normal. Additionally, due to a chromosomal abnormality, she has internal testes instead of a womb or ovaries.
Following her triumph in Berlin seven years ago, Elisa Cusma – who finished sixth behind the now 25-year-old Semenya, bluntly said what many people must have thought: “These kind of people should not run with us. For me, she’s not a woman. She’s a man.”
Whilst there’s a good amount of sour grapes to the Italian’s statement, there was certainly a bit of truth to it, or at least, how the situation was perceived.
Semenya’s name became synonymous with controversy and by 2011, the IAAF had introduced regulations which required athletes with hyperandrogenism to require testosterone-suppressing medication.
A silver medal at the 2012 Olympics in London followed, but Semenya’s star, while swapping coaches a couple of times and battling injury, was seemingly on the wane after failing to qualify for the final 2014 Commonwealth Games or the 2015 World Championships.
However, last year another athlete with hyperandrogenism, Indian sprinter Dutee Chand, appealed to the Court of Arbitration for Sport over the use of the testosterone-suppressing medication and CAS found that there is not enough conclusive evidence to prove that high levels of testosterone does indeed give female athletes a significant athletic advantage.
While CAS ordered the IAAF to continue looking into the matter, the ruling was set aside and athletes like Semenya and Chand were allowed to compete naturally again.
Nevertheless, prior to the start of the Olympics, IAAF boss Sebastian Coe said that he intends to appeal the CAS ruling, while marathon world record holder Paula Radcliffe claims that it simply isn’t sport if athletes like Semenya competes.
“When we talk about it in terms of fully expecting no other result than Caster Semenya to win that 800m, then it’s no longer sport,” Radcliffe told the BBC last month.
“It’s not just Caster’s rights but all the women with elevated testosterone that need to be balanced with those that don’t.”
So that is the backdrop under which Semenya competes: athletics authorities remain uncertain what to do with her some seven years after the issue of hyperandrogenism first surfaced, while some of her peers doubt her eligibility.
Back home in South Africa, the majority of fans have gotten behind Semenya, and the hashtag #HandsOffCaster has gained significant momentum as race day nears.
— Kass Naidoo (@KassNaidoo) August 14, 2016
— BACONISTA (@SlyPod) August 14, 2016
It is easy to forget that there’s a person, a woman, at the heart of this debate. Semenya has always complied with the rules, has never been accused of any personal wrong-doing. She was born this way and is only trying to do what she loves.
“I am not a fake,” she told the BBC last year. “I am natural. I am just being Caster. I don’t want to be someone I don’t want to be. I don’t want to be someone people want me to be.”
In London four years ago, Semenya clocked a 1:57.23 to finish a second behind Mariya Savinova, but after running a personal best 1:55.33 at the Monaco Diamond League event, she will step onto the track in Rio on Wednesday in the form of her life.
On the fast track at the Olympic Stadium the sky is the limit for her. Her July personal best was posted seemingly effortlessly and it will be some spectacle if she goes flat out gun-to-tape, like David Rudisha did during the men’s 800m final in London.
How fast can she go?
Sadly, the better she runs the more controversy will be generated. She is in something of a catch-22 – the stronger her performances the more likely it is for the IAAF to impose further inhibitive regulations which could spell the end of her career as we know it.
There doesn’t seem to be a scenario where Semenya returns home from Rio a winner, even if she has a gold medal around her neck.
Article by Barend Prins
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