By Jennifer Roback
Caster Semenya is a two-time Olympic gold medalist who has been running for South Africa for over a decade.
During that time, she has been considered unbeatable after winning back-to-back gold medals at the 2012 and 2016 Olympics in the 800m race.
Despite all of her Olympic success, Semenya will not have the opportunity to defend her titles in Tokyo on July 29, 2021 because she decided not to suppress her naturally elevated testosterone levels.
“It is disappointing that you’re being stopped at your best and there’s nothing you can do about it,” Semenya said.
While Semenya was counted out of the 800m run, she attempted to qualify for the 5,000 meters run in Belgium on Wednesday, July 21, 2021 but the International Olympic Committee said that they would not extend the July 20, deadline causing her to be 22 seconds short of qualifying at the standard time of 15 minutes 10 seconds.
Semenya was born as an intersex woman, meaning that she was assigned female at birth but born with XY chromosomes.
The Intersex Society of North America defines intersex as “a general term used for a variety of conditions in which a person is born with a reproductive or sexual anatomy that doesn’t seem to fit the typical definitions of female or male.” Meaning that while Semenya is female, she has testosterone levels that are higher than average.
Following her 2016 Olympic success, the International Association of Athletics Federations, claimed that those who are hyperandrogenic, or intersex, pose an advantage over other athletes.
The IAAF cited: “Certain events female athletes with high testosterone levels benefit from a 1.8 percent to 4.5 percent competitive advantage over female athletes with lower testosterone level.”
On May 1, 2019, the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) ruled in favor of placing restrictions on female athletes who have higher levels of testosterone, meaning that those like Semenya, would have to have surgery or take medication to reduce the elevated levels in order to compete.
"Being intersex is a naturally occurring variation in humans, and it isn’t a medical problem — therefore, medical interventions (like surgeries or hormone therapy) usually aren’t medically necessary,” Planned Parenthood stated.
In the United States alone, one to two people out of every 100 people born are intersex.
Despite the elevated testosterone levels, Semenya is female, identifies as female, and lives her life as a woman, by asking her to suppress naturally occurring testosterone levels takes away part of her identity.
“I am very disappointed to be kept from defending my hard-earned title, but this will not deter me from continuing my fight for the human rights of all of the female athletes concerned,” Semenya said following the 2019 ruling.
Because Semenya was born this way, she has refused to give in to the regulations put in place that strip her of her identity as a woman.
Geneticist Eric Vilain believes that sex is not defined by one particular element.
“For many human reasons, it's so difficult to exclude women who've always lived their entire lives as women — to suddenly tell them 'you just don't belong here.' Because the implication is to tell them 'well, you're not a woman.' And I think society should not accept that easily,” he told NPR regarding Semenya’s case.
Since the decision has been made, Semenya’s lawyers claim that the limitations are "medically unnecessary as well as 'discriminatory, irrational, unjustifiable and a violation of the rules of the sport and universally recognized human rights.”
Semenya was not the only athlete banned from the 2020 Tokyo Olympics based on the World Athletics Organization's definition of womanhood.
18-year-old Namibians Christine Mboma and Beatrice Masilingi were also ruled ineligible for “having a naturally high testosterone level” in certain events after undergoing medical tests for athletes with differences in sexual development.
“It is important to understand that both our athletes were not aware of this condition neither did any family member, their coach or the NNOC-CGA [Namibia Olympic Committee] were aware of it. … Both Christine and Beatrice will be able to compete in the 100m and 200m events,” the Nambia Olympic Committee said in a statement on July 2, 2021.
Francine Niyonsaba, Margaret Wambui, and Aminatou Seyni have also been affected by this rule since 2019.
The IAAF has not addressed the discrimination accusations that have stemmed from this rule and there is no information on if the rule will be reversed for the 2024 Summer Olympics, however, intersex athletes like Semenya continue to fight for their right to identify how they want.