Community Is the Caster Semenya battle about testosterone levels in female athletes? Or...

    Is the Caster Semenya battle about testosterone levels in female athletes? Or is this war on Caster Semenya?


    Olympic Champion. World Champion. The name Caster Semenya has dominated the headlines in Women’s Track and Field since 2009 where she won her first world championships title in the 800m. Unlike other athletes, it is not just Semenya’s victories that have adorned headlines, but the question of Semenya’s gender (and sex).

    With the 2020 Tokyo Olympics on the horizon, much debate about Semenya, and other female athletes with hyperandrogenism, the IAAF tried to create a new, fair policy. The IAAF rule was reworked and reworded through 2018 and when it was released back in November, Semenya immediately appealed to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) stating that the ruling was unfairly written against her.

    The IAAF policy was written for women with DSD (Athletes with Differences of Sex Development), specifically for the 400m to 1-mile events at international athletics competitions. Given then number of DSD athletes competing, it is understandable why Semenya might feel targeted—these are the events she’s competed in successfully since 2009.

    As of today, a line has been drawn in the sand—again—when it comes to women competing in Track and Field. The CAS ruled that women with DSD had to limit their testosterone levels to 5 nmol/L; for reference, the normal female range is below 2 nmol/L. Typically, DSD women have testosterone ranges between 7.7 to 29.4 nmol/L; to be eligible to compete these women must be taking testosterone suppressing drugs for at least six months prior to competition. These women have until May 8 to comply in order to be able to compete at this year’s World Championships in Doha, Qatar.

    Semenya has always believed that the IAAF has targeted her. It is hard not to deny that might be the reality given that the ruling only applies to events that Semenya has previously competed in. But Semenya is resilient. She’s an agent for change, and she’s not giving up. “The decision of the CAS will not hold me back,” she said. “I will once again rise above and continue to inspire young women and athletes in South Africa and around the world.”

    I have the utmost respect for Semenya, for her world-class abilities and her capacity to stay positive during challenging times. Do I think it’s fair for my former middle-distance self and my current female teammates and friends to compete with Semenya? No. It’s not just the strength and power that higher levels of testosterone offer, but the ability to recover, as compared to those of us with lower testosterone. Having said that, I also do not think it’s fair to have Semenya competing with the men.

    The Olympics is about bringing the greatest athletes together to compete, but it’s also about bringing the world together. Just because the Olympics has only had two categories until now does not mean we have to continue to have the same binary categories. Perhaps we are in an age where we can objectively talk about having more classifications, have a conversation on the difference between the words ‘sex’ and ‘gender,’ learn from the World of Para, and just generally be more kind to one another, because, ultimately, that brings out the best in us all.

    Photograph by Getty Images.


    1. Not being in Ms. Semenya’s shoes means I am unable to appreciate all that she has endured. But, here is a different perspective from any I have read on this to date. What if I knew that I had a natural athletic advantage that was chemically-based and that artificial chemicals existed that could reduce that advantage? In direct contradistinction from large feet/jhands, limbs/height, and all the endowments of nature that have produced the advantages and success for Phelps and Bolt, is a biochemical advantage that can be altered something I would resist since I was “born this way” just like those with other natural endowments? Would I continue to race knowing the field was not as level given my natural chemistry was over and above the rest of the field in terms of providing extra power/speed/endurance/resilience and what many have been doping to obtain (and losing medals and being banned when caught)? Or would I agree that I would REALLY have my athletic abilities challenged if I was more chemically-in line with my competitors, by reducing my elevated levels? This is not about regulating women’s bodies much as many see it that way (how many athletes have not doped despite the regulations to gain those elevated advantages…the regulations are imposed on mens’ bodies as well) as much as it is about urging those athletes whose natural chemistry has proven indisputably advantageous, whose physique from naturally-elevated testosterone may continue to produce an advantage artificial chemicals will never change, to consider if they should not actually WANT to see if they would win against a field of similar-or close to similar-hormone levels? What better vindication is there then to win with the estrogen levels as found in my competitors? If I were Ms. Semenya, I would at least want to find out how I’d perform…

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