In the fall of 2009 Caster Semenya, a middle-distance runner who will compete next week in Rio, appeared on the cover of South Africa’s YOU magazine in a stylish black dress, gold bangles stacked twenty-deep up her arm. “Exclusive!” ran the story’s headline, “We turn SA’s power girl into a glamor girl—and she loves it!”
In the publication’s four-page-spread, the made-over Semenya, just 18 at the time, models leather pants and sequined tops with a broad smile: “I’d like to dress up more often and wear dresses,” she’s quoted as saying, “but I never get the chance.” Her friends from university make a cameo, too; they tell the magazine Semenya really wants more stilettos, manicures, pedicures. You know, all that regular, everyday girl stuff.
At the time the You magazine makeover was probably the closest Semenya and her handlers had come to directly addressing the question of Semenya’s biological sex, a scandal that had erupted just a month before in the most inopportune of moments: on the very day she beat out her competitors by a full two seconds and became the reigning world champion. But if you’ve ever seen a photograph of Semenya or watched footage of her races, the glossy spread might strike you as a little unsettling. Semenya is a famously tomboyish athlete who speaks in a deep baritone and favors long running shorts during races. In a more recent interview she’s crisp and androgynous in a black fitted hat, grey polo, and silver chain.
Such moves to paint Semenya, now best known as the intersex Olympic runner, squarely as either a dude or a lady in the public imagination have been ongoing since that August morning in 2009, when the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAFF) confirmed rumors that she had, indeed, been subject to sex-determination testing. (And that, as was often the case, it had been performed without her knowledge under the guise of a doping test.) Later that day, rather than holding a news conference to celebrate her victory, Semenya, who was raised as and has always identified as a woman, was deeply ashamed and nowhere to be found. It took seven years and an extended debate over intersex athletes’ fate in the sporting world—a culture predicated on the raw biological capacity of the human body—for Semenya to find herself back on the Olympic track, sans hormone treatment. Her presence there has been referred to as a “time bomb”; the 800-meter event, a test of the “biggest issue in women’s sports.” Such hand-wringing suggests the world still isn’t ready for an athlete like Semenya—could that be true?
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In 2009 gender verification tests hadn’t been compulsory for almost a decade. Still, the IAFF reserved the right to investigate an athlete on a case-by-case basis—meaning the decision to test women like Semenya tended to be incubated in gossip, which was then spread to the press. The science, then and now, of determining sex is contested territory; even if analyzing testosterone levels or mandating invasive gynecological exams could confirm or deny a person’s gender (which, of course, it doesn’t), the boundaries between male and female just aren’t that iron-clad. And while high testosterone is associated with greater muscle mass and competitive drive, our understanding of its effect on athletic performance, particularly when it occurs naturally, is “rudimentary” at best.
Or, as one bioethicist told the New York Times on the day Semenya’s test was leaked: “Sex is messy … Humans like categories neat, but nature is a slob.”
But tell that to the IAFF, or Semenya’s competitors in a particularly feminine-presenting Olympic sport, or the headlines that asked, “Could this woman’s world champ be a man?” On the day Semenya blew through the finish line and flexed her biceps at the crowd in a rare show of bravado, the 6th-place runner, Elisa Cusma, told an Italian journalist, “These people should not run with us. For me she is not a woman. She is a man.”
On the same day, the Russian runner Mariya Savinova—later banned for a doping scandal—simply sneered, “Just look at her.” Which is, of course, exactly what nearly everyone did. They gawked all through the year-long investigation by the IAFF, and into her slow creep back towards the spotlight following what’s widely assumed to be hormone-suppression treatment. And they’re doing it most intensely now, as she returns to the Olympics and is expected not just to take home gold but, just maybe, to break a 33-year-old world record.
At this point it may be useful to mention that even Semenya’s best times generally fall below the average of male runners’ in her chosen sport, and that while she has garnered the most scrutiny it has been referred to as an “open secret” that at least three other intersex athletes are finalists in this year’s 800-meter dash. Also likely relevant are the athlete’s build and the timbre of her voice, which still, years after IAFF’s test, remain the subject of intense public scrutiny. Ariel Levy, writing in the New Yorker shortly after Semenya’s stunning win, described her as “breathtakingly butch. Her torso is like the chest plate on a suit of armor.”
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In moments like these, when the dogma of hard science offers few satisfying answers and glory (not to mention prize money) is on the line, vulgar assumptions have a way of standing in for certainty. In the months following the IAFF’s announcement in 2009, Semenya was allegedly referred to as a “trassie”—Afrikaans slang for transvestite—and accused of having “something dangling between her legs” by an Australian sports commenter. By way of rebuttal, her coach at the time, Michael Seme, suggested journalists contact Semenya’s roommates in Berlin: “They have seen her naked in the showers,” he said, “and she has nothing to hide.” Such scrutiny of her body has been nothing short of constant, even in top-tier journalistic outlets.
Though it’s since been removed, an AP video posted to the Los Angeles Times’ website in the days following the controversy panned slowly over Semenya’s body and played clips of her voice while in the background a reporter comments that “she—yes, she—claims to be a woman.” The case of the “sex-riddled runner” was called, in turn, “creepy” “weird,” “bizarre” and “wild.” In an exclusive interview with Semenya’s father, the Daily Mail described a child with a “strangely gruff voice” who loved football and hated “the romantic films loved by her sisters.” All rigid gender constructions that had little to do with the eventual findings of the IAFF. Leaked by the Australian Daily Telegraph, which referred to Semenya as a “hermaphrodite,” the report indicated Semenya was intersex and had both female and male characteristics, including a set of undescended testes.
Shortly after, a gynecologist, betraying a truly limited understanding of the matter at hand, told the Guardian: “It’s a very complex area … I have seen pictures of this girl and she has no waist and very masculine musculature.”
The IAFF, preferring their categories neat and likely under pressure to draw a rigid line, determined Semenya had too much testosterone in her body to compete, barring her much the same way they barred Dutee Chand, an Indian sprinter afflicted with “hyperandrogenism” in 2013. But last year, the short and compact Chand, who refused to take testosterone-suppressing drugs or undergo surgery (it has been widely assumed Semenya, in the years since 2009, did) won her case in the Court of Arbitration for Sport. She and Semenya are eligible to compete without altering their bodies this year, under circumstances where they are likely to draw significant ire.
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During the years in which Semenya received treatment—probably hormone-suppressing drugs, though the details remain under wraps—the molding of her body into something more recognizably female featured prominently in stories about her career. A 2012 profile in the Toronto Star marvels at her sheer girlishness: During training, it observes, Semenya “wears a tight turquoise polo over her fit, feminine body,” and is “relaxed, poised and, it must be said, pretty.” Not long after, the Atlantic Wire would publish back-to-back photos, complete with red Reddit-style investigative arrows quoting the Levy New Yorker piece. “Suit of armor,” one reads, “strong jawline!” another, pointing in the direction of the runner’s torso, the supposed softening of her chin.
And as this week’s event—anticipated to be an historic one for Semenya—has drawn closer, the backlash has begun in a less glossy-mag manner. Earlier this summer, Shannon Rowbury, a runner who has competed previously on the U.S. Olympic team, told reporters she thinks that while she likes Semenya personally, “women have fought too long to be able to even have the right to compete and now it’s being challenged by intersex and trans athletes and I don’t think that’s right,” as if being intersex and being trans were the remotely the same thing.
But Rowbury is right to point out that women fought fiercely to compete in sporting events like these, and to prove their bodies were capable of withstanding such grueling physical challenge. The women's 800-meter sprint, the event in which Semenya will compete, was introduced in the 1928 Olympic games—supposedly, the athletes who were begrudgingly allowed to run it collapsed at the finish line under the strain, an event widely reported and taken for fact.
The IAFF, taking the “wretched eleven” fainting runners as proof the 800-meter was detrimental to women's health, pulled the event; it wouldn’t return until well into 1960s. Since then, historians have found the events of 1928 were almost entirely fabricated, a total hallucination on the part of the press. Which isn’t to say Semenya’s case isn't complicated, or exactly the same—just that even the Olympics, with its focus on the certainty of biological fact, is subject to the whims of commentators, the benchmarks set by the culture at large.
One might think that in today’s world, with its slightly more enlightened attitudes about the fluidity of gender and sex, we’d look more kindly on athletes like Semenya. And sure, the runner has her advocates, among them the Australian middle-distance runner Madeleine Pape, a former detractor of Semenya’s. Pape, having spent some time off the track, recently published an op-ed describing Semenya as a “black, queer tomboy from South Africa”—which makes her “a marginal character in a sport that is predominantly straight, historically dominated by white Europeans, [and] organized along strict gender segregation and objectification of women’s bodies.”
But it’s just these qualities that make someone like Semenya so difficult for the sporting world—the pushback is about the science of hormones, sure, but it’s also about the way she presents, the ambiguity she offers. It’s also, in no small part, about the way she so utterly crushes it out on the field.