Caster Semenya, Scrutinized for Her Gender, Strides Into Olympic Finals

Olympic Caster Semenya's gender first came under public scrutiny seven years ago. This year, she's competing in Rio's Olympic games, spurring controversy that experts say is scientifically unfounded.

Diana Tourjée

Diana Tourjée

Photo via Flickr

The body plays an essential role in professional athletics, so perhaps it isn't surprising that sex and gender are scrutinized in sports. Throughout the 20th century, women worked for equal opportunity in the Olympic games. But during that long struggle, there has been an effort to end the participation of women who are suspected of having intersex conditions or of otherwise naturally producing atypically high levels of testosterone. Though there have been such athletes in the Olympics throughout the last hundred years—and the "humiliating practice of sex-testing female athletes" has gone through a number of iterations—there is one athlete who reignited this controversy in the 21st century.

The South African runner Caster Semenya came under suspicion seven years ago after she won the 800m race at the world championships. Semenya was subjected to testing that unconfirmed reports say revealed that she has an intersex condition. The IAAF regulations at that time required such athletes to either have surgery or submit to pharmaceutical treatment to suppress testosterone levels if they wanted to continue in their athletic careers. Semenya hasn't confirmed the reports that she is intersex.

In the aftermath, she reportedly stated, "I have been subjected to unwarranted and invasive scrutiny of the most intimate and private details of my being."

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An Indian runner named Dutee Chand was similarly scrutinized, subjected to testing for hyperandrogenism, a condition in which women produce high levels of testosterone. But Chand went to court and achieved a temporary victory. The court ruled in favor of Chand and the regulations that would force her, and other such athletes, to have surgery or take medication were stalled for two years, meaning that Semenya became free to participate in this year's Olympic games without suppressing her natural testosterone levels.

"Caster ran yesterday morning, easily qualifying for the semi-final tonight," says Bruce Kidd, a former athlete and a professor of kinesiology and physical education at the University of Toronto. "I thought she ran easily, well within herself. She remains one of the favorites for the women's 800." Kidd was an advisor to Chand as she fought in court against the IAAF regulations; he's worked toward the rights of athletes whose sex is scrutinized in elite sports. Semenya placed sixth in qualifying rounds.

"One of the aspirations of the Olympic Movement is to celebrate and affirm the diversity of humanity," Kidd says. "The participation of Ms. Chand and Semanya in this context powerfully affirms that spirit." Not everyone in pro sports shares that opinion: One Australian coach reportedly said that Semenya's participation is "clearly unfair." Officials fear that the controversy surrounding Semenya could cause harm to come to her while in Rio; reports claim that she is currently under constant protective guard.

When reached for comment, Semenya's public relations representative explained, "Caster is not doing any interviews before her finals. We have been inundated with requests and have cancelled all media."

Read more: The Uncertain Olympic Future for Trans and Intersex Athletes

Supporters of Semenya believe that the argument against intersex athletes—and the excessive scrutiny that accompanies it—is a clear violation of their rights. "Neither Dutee Chand nor Caster Semanya have said that they are intersex," Kidd says. "Both of them are very upset and angry that sports authorities have leaked what should be highly confidential information."

The argument against athletes like Semenya and Chand centers around the unfair advantage of high testosterone, but Kidd says that argument is baseless. "There is no clear finding about a significant relationship between inherent, natural testosterone and performance," Kidd states. "Such scrutiny is unfair and discriminatory—the head of the Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sports told CAS that the hyperandrogenism test would violate human rights legislation in Canada—and perpetuates antiquated myths about gender and sport. It should end as soon as possible."

Dr. Silvia Camporesi, a bioethicist, believes that questioning the advantageous effects of naturally produced testosterone is irrelevant. "There is no level playing field in elite sport, and testosterone is no different from other advantages," she says, referring to characteristics like body size and other biological variations. Some athletes, she argues, are just physically superior to others—high testosterone levels are just more likely to be scrutinized than other apparent advantages. "Think of Ledecky. Think of Phelps. Think of Biles. Is that unfair for fellow athletes to swim/compete in same category as these athletes who obviously are in a separate 'league'?" she said. "There is no 'competing against alike' in competition."

To Kidd, the debate around these athletes isn't really about science or fairness. "I believe the scrutiny of Ms. Chand and Semanya is another expression of the longstanding patriarchal fear of strong, capable women and the long history of gender policing in international sport," he says, adding that "there's an element of racism in this. All of the women known to have been tested for hyperandrogenism come from the global South."

"All humans who self-identify as women and live their lives as women should be eligible to compete as women in international sport," Kidd affirms.