Caster Semenya had the fastest time, 1:58.15, in the women’s 800m semifinals and is favored to win gold. This isn’t the kind of news that blows up into a big story, for the Olympics it’s pretty standard. Except that Semenya has been under intense scrutiny regarding her gender, starting in 2009 after her remarkable performance in the World Championships. When there were no signs of Semenya doping, the International Association of Athletics Federation (IAAF) looked for other reasons to “explain” her progressively amazing times.
In 2009 the IAAF made Semenya, only 18 at the time, undergo a gender test. Mandatory gender testing had been discontinued since 1992, and even before then women with Y chromosomes or androgen insensitivity were allowed to compete because those conditions do not give women and unfair edge. Semenya and Indian runner Dutee Chand have hyperandrogenism, though there isn’t evidence that this condition provides an unfair edge either.
The IAAF’s test to see how high testosterone affects the body is humiliating and invasive, and not always explained to the athletes who undergo it, though the IAAF certainly spoke publicly about Semenya’s testing to the press. People have been torn about gender testing and the fairness of high T women competing, but most agree that the IAAF bungled their treatment of Semenya and the publicity it garnered.
Even if Caster Semenya differs from the typical XX woman, it’s hard to say what the test achieved and why it was administered. Though it is telling that the fifth and sixth place finishers in the World Championships said, “just look at her.” Caster Semenya is not a small or delicate looking woman; she’s also a lesbian, and not a super femme presenting one. It would seem less like Caster Semenya was singled out because of performance, which would implicate people like Katie Ledecky or Simone Biles, but because she wasn’t deemed girly enough, whatever that means.
The Olympics has had a strained relationship with appropriate gender performance from the beginning of the modern games. The general belief in 1896 was that women shouldn’t compete in sports because they were either incapable or if they proved capable, something was wrong with them. Within the last five years we have seen the IOC open sports like boxing and ski jump to women. Apparently women had to be protected from certain sports for various nebulous reasons regarding what women can and should do. (Also telling, is that synchronized swimming and rhythmic gymnastics are still closed to men.) In making a big deal about whether or not Semenya is feminine enough to compete, the IAAF and others were choosing to make her excellence and success a sign of what’s wrong with her.
I watched Caster Semenya’s semifinal heat, and while her push to the finish line was decisive, it wasn’t the case that other competitors didn’t stand a chance. 800m requires more than raw physical power; it takes patience and discipline, which Semenya showed through out. She is a talented runner and considering everything she’s gone through, her perseverance extends well beyond the track.