Caster Semenya: Runner, champion... guinea pig?

Hormone therapy might be slowing down South Africa’s star runner
LONDON, ENGLAND - JULY 27, Caster Semenya, South African 800m athlete during the Team South Africa press conference at Copthorne Tara Hotel on July 27, 2012 in London, England. Photo by Roger Sedres / Gallo Images
Caster Semenya, who'll run the 800-m for South Africa, during the team's press conference in London, on July 27, 2012. (Roger Sedres/Gallo Images)

Caster Semenya wants nothing less than the happiest of endings. “The plan is to win the Olympics, that’s all. I have to win a gold,” the 21-year-old South African runner said right after qualifying for the Games in May. That was three years after she was temporarily banned from racing following a flurry of speculation over her gender. Now, though, the very hormones she has to take to satisfy the authorities she’s woman enough to compete might spoil her Olympic dream.

In 2009, Semenya’s athletic debut degenerated into nightmare. At 19, she had won the 800-m event at the World Championships in her first international competition. She soared over the finished line a full two seconds—it might as well have been mile—ahead of her nearest rival, then wagged her finger, flexed her arms and grinned sheepishly. Some whispered about the newcomer’s deep voice, sculpted biceps and jaw line. A fellow competitor who finished sixth in the race voiced her doubts with unapologetic brutality: “These kind of people should not run with us. For me, she’s not a woman. She’s a man.”

Semenya’s humiliation escalated in stages. First, the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) subjected her to extensive gender testing, what she once recalled as “unwarranted and invasive scrutiny of the most intimate and private details of my being.” Then, she was suspended from further competition. South Africans, proud of their champion, cried foul. Even Nelson Mandela rallied behind her. In the end, she kept her gold medal, and, after 10 months of exile from the track, she was cleared to resume her career as a runner.

Yet unwanted scrutiny remains. Last year, Semenya won a silver at the World Championships in the 800-m. This year, her form has noticeably slumped. Her fastest time is 1:59.58, more than four seconds off her personal 2009 best of 1: 55.45. Why? It might have to do with the IAAF’s new guidelines for gender verification. Adopted in April 2011, largely in response to the Semenya gender debacle, they establish that female athletes now have to fall below a certain threshold of testosterone. For many female athletes, including Semenya, the Toronto Star reports reports, the new eligibility criteria mean compulsory hormonal therapy.

In principle, this is about creating a level playing field, but critics have bristled. “There is enormous pressure on sports governing bodies to find a clear, objective way to say this person is male and this person female,” says Dr. Katrina Karkazis, a medical anthropologist at Stanford University, who recently co-wrote a critique of the new policy with Rebecca Jordan-Young in the American Journal of Bioethics. “The problem is that the body doesn’t work this way. No marker is present in all males or females. But they felt it is better to do something, even a wrong thing, even an arbitrary thing, than nothing.”

“Will there be effects [from the treatment]?” asks Jordan-Young. “Yes, possibly tremendous ones. You will have people saying, ‘Oh look, the times are down.’ Well, hell yes they’re down. All productivity will be down after a major disruption to your body’s system.”

What’s making Semenya more of a woman in some people’s eyes, it seems, might be breaking her as an athlete just as she steps on the grandest athletic stage of all.