When 800m runner Caster Semenya rocketed across the line to claim gold at the 2009 World Championships, the distance she’d put between herself and the competition provoked as many questions as it did applause. While some commentators and competitors saw an athlete in peak form, others pointed to the South African’s appearance, as if her apparently ‘broad shoulders’ or ‘square jaw’ explained her success.
“Just look at her,” Russian runner Mariya Savinova told media.
Italy’s Elisa Cusma Piccione went further. “For me she is not a woman,” she said. “I am also sorry for the other competitors … It is useless to compete with this, and it is not fair.”
Caster Semenya has since (unintentionally, it seems) become the face of hyperandrogenism: a medical condition that causes a female to produce excessive levels of male sex hormones, including testosterone.
In the world of competitive athletics, it’s precisely those levels that determine whether or not an athlete can compete as a woman. In other words, sporting officials have defined what it means to be – or not to be – female.
It’s that definition the two-time Olympic champion is currently challenging.
Caster Semenya vs the IAAF.
The Swiss-based Court of Arbitration for Sport is in the process of deciding on an appeal lodged by the 28-year-old against hormone standards proposed by the International Association of Athletics Federations in April 2018.
The new IAAF regulation states that females with a “difference of sexual development” (in other words, have testosterone levels above the prescribed threshold) must either take hormone-lowering medication or race against men.
This applies to women in track events from 400m up to one mile (1.6km), and requires that athletes have to keep their testosterone levels below the set amount “for at least six months prior to competing”.