Running through the countryside of Limpopo on dirt roads, Caster Semenya dreamed of being a champion. In 2008, Semenya took her first step onto the world stage of athletics, winning a gold medal at the Commonwealth Youth Games. She followed this victory with another gold medal at the 2008 African Junior Athletics Championship. In fact, Semenya’s performance was so spectacular that she qualified for the 2009 World Championship in Berlin. Only 18 years old, Semenya appeared to be on top of her game—a world-class athlete with a dazzlingly bright future.
But then the rumors and accusations began to surface. Some doubted that Semenya was actually a woman. She looked masculine, they contended, and performed so much better than her competitors that she must be male. Semenya was subjected to two rounds of gender testing, the first in Pretoria. The second was in Berlin, a day before her race. Here she was, a teenager from a tiny rural village in South Africa, being examined in ways she did not understand, without her family there for support. Her parents never even knew the tests were being done.
Successfully passing the tests did not stop the rumors. In many ways, the situation actually got worse. After Semenya ran successfully in the semifinal round, a TV reporter outside of the stadium hollered at her: “I hear you were born a man!” Although visibly distressed, she managed to keep her focus and win the world championship.
It turns out that the International Association of Athletics Foundations (IAAF) had broken confidentiality rules and leaked the rumor. Worse, Australia’s Daily Telegraph claimed that test results showed that Semenya has external female genitals but no ovaries or uterus. The tabloid also claimed that she had undescended testes and testosterone levels three times higher than an average woman (but much lower than a man’s). While we don’t know if these reports are accurate (the tests are supposed to be private), we do know that Semenya was raised as a girl and sees herself as female. All of a sudden, at the age of 18, she was being told that she is not who she thinks she is.
Caster Semenya returned to the University of Pretoria, her athletic future uncertain. The IAAF allowed her to keep her gold medal because she did not commit fraud by competing as a woman. However, she did not run competitively with women in international track and field competitions for almost a year as she waited for the IAAF’s decision regarding her eligibility. Finally, Semenya got some good news when, in 2010, she was declared free to compete professionally with other female athletes. She won a silver medal in the 800 meters at both the 2011 world championships and the 2012 Summer Olympics in London. Semenya also carried South Africa’s flag in the opening ceremonies at those Olympics.
The IAAF had a huge problem. It wanted to answer a very difficult if not impossible question: what is the ultimate difference between males and females? Is it simply the ability to father a child or give birth once a person is sexually mature? If so, what about those who are unable to have children? Is there something that can be measured or tested that can show unequivocally that someone is a man or a woman? Or, might there be still other outcomes to sexual development? Could someone be human and yet neither a man nor a woman?