Caster Semenya on making strides that go far beyond competitive confines of field, court or track

Caster Semenya of South Africa looks at the results after her race in the women’s 800m heats during the Beijing 2015 IAAF World Championships at the National Stadium, also known as Bird's Nest, in Beijing, China, August 26, 2015. Picture: EPA/SRDJAN SUKI

Caster Semenya of South Africa looks at the results after her race in the women’s 800m heats during the Beijing 2015 IAAF World Championships at the National Stadium, also known as Bird's Nest, in Beijing, China, August 26, 2015. Picture: EPA/SRDJAN SUKI

Published Nov 9, 2022


Caster Semenya was a household name way before 2008 when she placed seventh in the 800m at the IAAF World Junior Championships at age 17.

At the Commonwealth Youth Games (CYG) in India she set meet records for the distance, as well as at the African Junior Athletics Championships, where she also set the fastest time in 2009 for any age category in the world for any distance in 1:56.72 (African Athletics, 2009).

However, her swift rise appeared to have drawn the attention of the IAAF, and the rumours about her deep voice and “masculine” characteristics were thought to be more typical of male runners than females.

Because of how “different” Semenya is, she was suspected of doping.

Despite the smear campaign, her thrilling triumph at the World Championships increased the focus on her athletic prowess, and the IAAF declared that she would have to undergo “gender verification” tests to see whether she is truly female.

In 2017, World Athletics published research that suggested women with higher levels of naturally occurring testosterone had blatant, seemingly unfair advantages over other women when participating in specific sports events, like the 800m.

Based on the study, Semenya – who holds two Olympic gold medals in the 800m – was barred from competing under the rules that prohibit athletes with differences of sexual development (DSD) from competing at distances ranging from 400m to the mile unless they use hormone-reducing drugs.

Caster Semenya, the record holder of the 800m event, competed in the 7000m race at the Green Point Stadium and finished under 9 minutes with a time of 8:54:97, making her the 6th fastest women in the country to win the race. Picture: Phando Jikelo/African News Agency (ANA)

Semenya has not taken the ruling of the IAAF lying down, although she admits that it has not been easy.

“I think like everyone else in life, you plan and map out your career and goals, with clear intentions on what you want to achieve. It is a devastating experience to be forced to stop doing what you love,” the athlete told IOL Lifestyle.

The two-time Olympic gold medallist in the 800m, the former world champion in the 800m, and the double Commonwealth games gold medallist in the middle distance is currently fighting to overturn a ban by the World Athletics Federation which prevents her from running 400-1500m races unless she takes hormone-altering drugs.

LUX Born This Way campaign pledged support to Semenya in her fight against the IAAF for the right to perform and defend the 800m world championship title without the use of hormone-altering drugs in 2021.

Due to Semenya’s ongoing battle, she is currently barred from competing unless she takes drugs that suppress her natural hormones, which is unfair.

Conversations hosted by businesswoman and content creator Mpoomy Ledwaba with Caster Semenya and LUX brand ambassador Zozibini Tunzi explore the complexities of overcoming the challenges of success as a black woman to bring to light the discriminatory suspension enforced by the IAAF.

Lux ambassador and longest reigning Miss Universe Zozibini Tunzi said something that incredibly encapsulated Semenya’s journey so beautifully: “It’s so incredible being African and black.”

She went on to say, “there’s something about being a successful black woman that people always want to look for something to scrutinise. You have to be extremely extraordinary to be where you are whereas if you’re anything else it’s expected, you have to explain yourself and defend yourself.”

Since refusing to take the hormone-altering drug which the IAAF did not explain how they would work Semenya has been on the sidelines.

It can be very demoralising to have to stop playing a sport due to health reasons but for something that you have no control over, I cannot begin to imagine what Semenya must be going through.

Multiple studies included in the 2012 International Review of Sport and Exercise Psychology found that “athletes who experienced forced retirement … experienced high levels of negative emotions”.

We asked if she thought the ban was politically motivated. Disappointed that something meant to be a connector of people from all walks of life is tainted by political and racial prejudice in and of the field.

“Of course it was, that’s the one thing that cannot be ignored. This is by no means the end, for me, it’s for the love of the game – I value sportsmanship,” said Semenya.

Did anyone explain how the hormone-reducing drugs would work and affect you in any way?

“No, of course they would not. Not truthfully anyway. They do not care about that or us and our livelihood or well-being at all, it’s clear.”

In no way did the association explain how Semenya supposedly benefited from her inherently higher testosterone than those of atypical females.

Of course, as a result of biological differences between the sexes, competitive sports segregate males and females. But how is being who you are considered a disadvantage for others?

“What is the benefit of being altered from being yourself?” said Semenya.

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