Caster Semenya’s attitude to continue serving black excellence despite the ridiculous amounts of bull she’s had to go through is the reason she’s our Woman Crush Everyday.
Born in 1991 in rural Ga-Masehlong, Polokwane to Dorcus and Jacob Semenya, Mokgadi Caster Semenya has always been a winner. She was raised by her grandmother in the Fairlien village. She began her running career with the Moletjie Athletics Club in Limpopo – according to the club’s secretary, Kaizer Mokaba, the club discovered her in her home village and developed her talent. The middle-distance runner and 2016 Olympic gold medalist’s talent is often overshadowed by controversies over her gender, despite her holding the national 800m record.
Semenya played a lot of soccer growing up. “I loved soccer. I played soccer a lot in the men’s division because we didn’t have a women’s division that side,” Semenya told journalist Bareng-Batho Kortjaas in an interview with the Sunday Times.
“Semenya’s athleticism was attributed to a single molecule – testosterone – as though it alone earned her the gold, undermining at once her skill, preparation and achievement,” wrote Katrina Karkazis in The Guardian.
Do elevated testosterone levels in a woman even enhance athletic performance? If so, by how much? Five metres? Two seconds? The difference between first and sixth place?
Semenya has been through a hell of a lot since she became champion at the women’s 800m world athletics championships in Berlin at 18: she’s been ridiculed, stripped, had her place in world athletics questioned and her gender very publicly and constantly scrutinised.
Rather than admiration, her victory resulted in a ban, invasive medical examinations and a swirl of derogatory media reports that she had both male and female sexual characteristics.
Questions were raised about her gender following her victory at the 2009 world championships. The International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) felt “obligated to investigate” after Semenya made improvements to her performance, which they categorised as “the sort of dramatic breakthroughs that usually arouse suspicion of drug use”.
The test took weeks to complete and required a physical medical evaluation, including reports from a gynaecologist, endocrinologist, psychologist, an internal medicine specialist and an expert on gender. The IAAF added that the “gender verification test” was to prove she did not have an unfair biological advantage.
The sex test results were never published officially but some results were leaked to the media, resulting in bigoted claims about Semenya, such as having three times the amount of testosterone that a “normal” female would have. Although she identifies as a woman, she’s been shoeboxed as “intersex” and “hyperandrogenic”; some have gone as far as saying she’s not 100% woman. We won’t reproduce some of the nastier tweets that we’ve seen here.
Semenya was withdrawn from international competition until July 6 2010, a whole 11 months later, when the IAAF cleared her to return to competition.
“Over the last seven years, the narrative surrounding Semenya has taken on a life of its own. She’s no longer viewed as a human being; she’s merely a concept to debate. While others get fawning Sports Illustrated covers when they dominate their sports, Semenya gets ridiculed and questioned, poked and prodded,” wrote sports reporter Lindsay Gibbs.
But all of this only made Semenya stronger: as Azad Essa noted, “Another human being might have hung up their boots, succumbing to the slander. But Caster only worked harder, facing the humiliation head-on. She stood up. She focused. She ran.”