Women in Motion: Caster Semenya


Photo courtesy of Ibrahem Alomari

Caster Semenya won the 800-meters in 1:54.98 at the Diamond League Meeting in Doha, Qatar on May 3, 2019.

Limitations of distinct gender categories in athletics

For those who follow international athletics closely, Caster Semenya is a familiar name. She has been a well-known competitive middle distance runner for about a decade.

After winning the gold medal in the 800-meter race at the 2009 IAAF World Championships in Berlin at age 18, she catapulted to the international stage. While such an achievement would be a tremendously positive event for most teenagers, Semenya’s victory was tinged by ruminations among the athletic community about her gender.

Many suggested that some biological attribute was giving her an advantage over her competitors. Her eight second improvement over the previous year when she won gold at the African Junior Championships added even more fuel to the rumors. Since 2015, Semenya has won 30 straight 800-meter races.

Ultimately, the International Association of Athletics Federations decided to start investigating Semenya in regards to her biological sex and, more specifically, to identify whether she is an intersex individual.

According to the Intersex Society of America’s website, intersex is “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.” The Intersex Campaign for Equality estimates that about 1.7% of the human population is born with some type of intersex characteristic.

While the IAAF investigation was underway, Semenya continued to run, compete, and win. Then, in April 2018, the IAAF announced the implementation of new eligibility regulations for female classification called “Athletes with Differences of Sex Development,” or DSD. These regulations specifically apply to individuals competing in the female athletic classification who have XY chromosomes. According to an IAAF press release on May 7, the regulations arose “to ensure fair competition for all women.”

Genetically, females are characterized by having XX chromosomes and males by having XY. The DSD regulations require that any athletes with XY chromosomes seeking to compete in female track events between the 400-meters and the mile must maintain testosterone levels under five nanomoles per liter (nmol/L). Under this ruling, XY woman athletes with naturally higher testosterone levels would most likely require hormonal treatment in the form of oral contraceptives or other options.

According to Allina Health, normal testosterone levels in women range from 0.52 to 2.43 nmol/L while normal levels in men range from 10.41 to 34.7 nmol/L. However, many individuals’ levels lie outside these ranges.

The stated reasoning for the IAAF regulations was scientific evidence showing that higher testosterone levels in athletes had been demonstrated to improve performance in races between 400 and mile. Thus, the IAAF claimed that athletes with XY chromosomes were given an unfair advantage due to their higher testosterone levels.

Professor of anthropology Colin Betts (‘93) has been following running and coverage of Semenya’s case since it emerged 10 years ago.

“Caster Semenya is a phenomenal athlete,” Betts said. “The testosterone that she has that’s additional clearly must provide some advantage, but [testosterone] is only part of it. [The IAAF is] saying [intersex athletes] need to bring [themselves within the range of most females]. I find that problematic. The difficulty with sex is, you have people that don’t fit neatly within the [male and female] categories.”

Semenya appealed the April 2018 DSD regulations set by the IAAF, and this story has resurfaced this month because the Court of Arbitration for Sport rejected Semenya’s appeal on May 1. According to the CAS press release regarding the decision, “the Panel found that the DSD Regulations are discriminatory but the majority of the Panel found that, on the basis of the evidence submitted by the parties, such discrimination is a necessary, reasonable and proportionate means of achieving the IAAF’s aim of preserving the integrity of female athletics in the Restricted Events.”

Since the decision, Semenya has said that she will not undergo hormonal treatment to lower her testosterone levels.

“At the end of the day, I have a goal,” Semenya said in an interview with BBC Sport after winning the 800-meters at the Doha Diamond League meeting on May 3. “At the moment, what I will say is I’m going to keep on doing what I do best, which is running.”

Women’s Head Cross Country Coach Yarrow Pasche said that in her 14 years of coaching at Luther she has never, to her knowledge, encountered an intersex student athlete. She does believe, however, there must be intersex athletes currently competing.

“I imagine similar individuals have been competing at a local level and in Division III,” Pasche said. “I can’t imagine that there haven’t been.”

Currently, the NCAA does have a policy of explicit inclusion for transgender student athletes. However, there is no similar policy for intersex athletes.

Track and field athlete Heather Hostager (‘22) said that it is necessary that the NCAA consider creating policy addressing athletic participation of intersex individuals.

“[The NCAA should] advocate in favor of [intersex athletic participation] in order to dissuade discrimination from anyone who would like to participate in college athletics,” Hostager said.

Pasche noted that in some cases — such as drug testing — changes in policy on the international level will trigger policy changes on national and local levels. Currently, the IAAF’s regulations only apply to athletes competing at the international level.

Hostager sympathizes with Semenya’s case and says that Semenya should be allowed to compete without lowering her testosterone levels.

“Although in certain people’s eyes this creates an unfair advantage, I believe in every sport there are unfair advantages due to genetic makeup,” Hostager said. “As the choice of the competitor to participate in athletics, I think it is most fair to respect your own and your opponents’ mixture of time, talent, and effort and use that to be competitive. I know that I would feel cheated if I raced next to someone who was mandated to lower their hormone levels because I want to race everybody at their best so that I can be my best.”

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