Did Caster Semenya really have an edge?

Whether the South African sprinter is blessed with a genetic advantage is open to medical debate

Did Caster Semenya really have an edge?South African sprinter Caster Semenya entered last month’s International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) World Championships a relative unknown. By the end of the eight-day event, she was the talk of the sporting world.

In the women’s 800m final, Semenya left the rest of the field eating her dust, winning the race in 1.55.45. It was the best time in that discipline this year.

Then came the controversy: Semenya’s deep voice, and masculine build and muscle structure led the IAAF to call her gender into question. Test results, leaked by two newspapers, the Times of London and Sydney Daily Telegraph, last Thursday, revealed that the 18-year-old sprinter is intersex, a condition that affects fewer than 1 in 2,000 births, according to the Intersex Society of North America.

Semenya’s body contains features of both males and females. That may mean she is pumping much more testosterone than her competitors, say medical experts. Given the advantage the condition may confer, some in the sports world are now questioning whether Semenya should be allowed to compete in women’s events.

But whether Semenya has been blessed with a genetic edge is open to medical debate, says professor Alice Domurat Dreger, who teaches medical humanities and bioethics at Northwestern University in Chicago. Even if Semenya has testes, the androgens produced by her testes and her adrenal glands, including testosterone, may not affect her body the way they do in the typical man, she says.

According to Dreger, there exist as many as 30 types of intersex conditions. Some people are born with both male and female reproductive organs; others are born biologically female, yet have masculine-looking genitalia; and still others are insensitive to the male hormones known as androgens, and cannot grow public hair. All of these variations of the condition affect the body differently.

South Africans have rallied behind Semenya and attacked the IAAf’s handling of the situation. Athletics South Africa president Leonard Chuene rushed to defend his star athlete: “I am not going to let that girl be humiliated in the manner that she was humiliated because she has not committed a crime whatsoever,” he said. “Her crime,” he added was “to be born the way she is born.” On Friday, South Africa’s sports minister, Makhenkesi Stofile, threatened a “third world war” should Semenya be barred from future IAAF competitions.

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) has criticized the IAAF’s handling of the case. On Friday, IOC president Jacques Rogge told the Associated Press that he wishes the investigation into Semenya’s gender could have been handled more discreetly. “This is something that touches the very soul of the individual,” said Rogge. “The psychological but also social consequences are really tremendous.”

Semenya’s future status as a track star is unclear. For now, the IAAF, is steering clear of pronouncements on the ethical issues the case raises, pending a medical investigation. In the meantime, Caster Semenya seems to be taking her sudden fame in stride: “I see [the gender investigation] as a joke,” she told the South African magazine, You. “It doesn’t upset me. God made me the way I am and I accept myself.”

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.