When South African middle distance runner Caster Semenya won the gold medal in the women’s 800m finals at the 2016 Rio Olympics, she did it in a time of 1:55.28. At 2 seconds off, it was nowhere near the Olympic and world record of 1:53.28 set by Jarmilla Kratochvilova.
The irony, however, is that Semenya and her handlers may have actually been relieved that she didn’t break Kratochvilova’s record, which has stood for more than two decades. If she had broken it, the victory may have provoked a firestorm of wild accusations. More than a few people believe that Kratochvilova’s record was the product of her use of performance-enhancing drugs, which helped her to win with an unfair advantage. 25-year-old Semenya has faced similar accusations of winning with an unfair advantage throughout her professional career.
Semenya first gained attention on the world scene in 2009 as a shy 18-year-old at the World Championships, finishing with a time of 1:55.85 and setting the fastest time for 2009 in the process. That victory was the beginning of Semenya’s troubles.
The combination of Semenya’s muscular appearance, her deep voice, and more than anything else, her incredible time records on the track soon fuelled rumours about her gender or possible drug use. Her extraordinary feats on the track had to be down to one of the two, her critics said.
Semenya was, however, a black African who had grown up in a small village called Ga-Masehlong near Polokwane. She could hardly be considered an elite athlete running with the assistance of hi-tech “laboratories” nor was she from an elite country. These facts more or less eliminated the suspicion of drug use.
The rumours and controversies did not go away, however. The dog whistles about her voice, her heavy muscular build, and her height just would not stop. Her critics had settled on a new allegation: they had concluded within themselves that Caster Semenya was a man.
The International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) was obliged to conduct tests to verify her gender. This it did amid more controversies – in today’s world of political correctness, many believed it was unfair to subject anyone to open accusations about their gender.
The IAAF, however, went ahead to conduct the tests, examining her genitalia, but the organization decided to keep the results confidential. The tests results found their way to the press anyhow, who revealed that Semenya had neither womb nor ovaries but instead had what appeared to be a pair of internal testes.
Semenya, it turns out, did not exactly fit into the strict boundaries of the female gender; however, calling her a man was also stretching the truth. In essence, Semenya was one of the so-called intersex athletes, or as she would prefer to be identified, a female with elevated levels of the male hormone, testosterone.
Semenya is an adult who considers herself to be female, and many people believe that should settle the matter about her gender. It might have if she wasn’t an athlete competing in a high-stakes event like the Olympics. For Semenya and many other professional athletes, winning is everything. The athletes all swear that they want a fair playing ground, for it is the only way to reward hard work and natural talent. As a result, the use of performance-enhancing drugs (popularly known as “doping”) is the generally agreed to be the most treacherous act a sportsman can engage in, and athletes who do are punished heavily — if they are caught.
Many believe that however Semenya decides to see herself is irrelevant as far as field of sports is concerned; if her being an “intersex” athlete gives her a decided advantage over the rest of her competitors, then they believe she has no business contesting in an event labelled “women.”
Semenya’s supporters continue to argue that she is being victimised by the press and her fellow competitors simply because of her sporting prowess. They argue that she is by no means the only intersex athlete competing in a female category. Elevated levels of testosterone simply do not make anyone a champion athlete. After all, the majority of full-grown men walk around stacked with a good dose of testosterone, but that does not automatically make them champions on the track.