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April 21, 2024

Gender testing in professional athletics: Caster Semenya

By MEGAN DiTROLIO | April 22, 2014

Caster Semenya should be known for her impressive running ability. What she is better known for is her gender ambiguity, a conflict that has affected her running career and her life in general. The South African has represented her country in track and field in various prestigious meets around the world, including the Olympics. Her participation in women’s track however has not gone without controversy, scrutiny and personal humiliation for the young athlete.

Semenya was born in Ga-Masehlong, a poor district in the northern Limpopo, South Africa, where aspiring athletes have little hope of ever amounting to anything. There she was part of the Moletjie Athletics Club, where she began participating in track and field from an early age. The athletes have little funding and most run barefoot through the South African grass and cornfields, avoiding poisonous plants and thorns when they can. Semenya began running there with the dream that a recruiter would pick up on her talents and grant her enough funding to have a college career despite the economics of her district. Her first recognized race did not disappoint—she ran a 2:04.23 for the gold in the 2008 Commonwealth Youth Games. That same year she appeared in the World Junior Olympics, establishing herself as an up and coming athlete. Her solid times were enough to get her recognized internationally as a star, but not yet enough to draw a red flag—her severe time drop later would accomplish that.

It was the African Junior Championships of 2009 that brought on questioning of Semenya’s gender. The athlete dropped at time of 1:56.72, the fastest time in the world thus far that year, as well as a national and championship record. The time was seven seconds faster than her previous personal record. At the same meet, she dropped 25 seconds in the 1500 meter run. The times drops were so drastic that the International Association of Athletics Federation (IAAF) had to take investigative action regarding the athlete, both testing her for illegal drug use as well as gender testing. Her masculine appearance and unusual muscle build also rose suspicion. Word that the IAAF had requested such tests was somehow leaked just before the 2009 World Championships 800 meter race, breaching confidentiality laws as well as infringing on Semenya’s privacy. Athletics South Africa (ASA) also subjected her to gender testing, without telling her the purpose of the test. As the tests had yet to be administered, Semenya raced and won the 800 meter run in a time of 1:55.45, setting the fastest time of the year and one of the tops times all time (to put in perspective, the women’s 800 meter world record is 1:53.28, set by Jarmila Kratochvílová in 1983, when many women were experimenting with performance enhancing drugs that were not yet tested for).

While the IAAF concluded their testing, Semenya was denied access to international races, and her previous wins’ legitimacy was threatened. Years of not being permitted affected her overall fitness level as well as her confidence. She was finally cleared on July 6, 2012, and began racing again. The official results of her testing were never released due to privacy issues, though a source associated with the IAAF claims that the results stated Semenya is intersex, better known as a “hermaphrodite.”  The source states that Semenya has a vagina but not a uterus or ovaries. She also has undescended testicles in her body that release three times the amount of testosterone that is produced in an average female body. This may attribute to her manlier appearance and muscle build, and may, it is claimed, give her an unfair advantage over female runners. Because she has both male and female body parts, it is unclear if she should be allowed to participate in women’s running. The IAAF laws declaring either way on subjects like this are vague, though gender testing is not new in professional athletics.

Outside of the IAAF, Semenya has been scrutinized by her competitors and race spectators alike. Competitors ask her to expose herself to them in the bathroom before races, so they can ensure her gender, which Semenya has learned to obliged to in order to keep them from filing formal complaints. She gets called “manly” and is constantly ridiculed for her appearance. Her competitors blatantly talk to reporters about how they don’t think Semenya should be allowed to race them and how it’s unfair when they do. While Semenya is a fast women, she would never hold up in a mans race, being nearly 15 seconds behind them. This leaves Semenya in an awkward position, as she is unsure of her place in athletic competition.

Gender and steroid testing in professional sports remains a sticky question, but it is necessary. This testing needs to continue in order to maintain the integrity of the competition. Drug testing is relatively uncontroversial, as it is widely accepted that performance enhancing drugs are illegal and therefore testing is acceptable. Gender testing on the other hand is quite more controversial, but it should still be administered in order to keep the playing field fair; for example, there have been cases in earlier high profile sporting events in which men tried to pose as women in order to win gold.

However, in order to promote equality and to reduce stereotyping and prejudice, this testing must be a condition of participation for all athletes, not just specially chosen ones (the current policy tests only those athletes in question). This test can be conducted in various different ways, so it is important to pick the least invasive of the bunch. Chromosome testing is a way to test for gender that may be more conclusive and less humiliating than hyperandrogenism, which would test women for their levels of testosterone. Hyperandrogenism runs the risk of prejudice and discrimination, as it could possibly eliminate female athletes from competition simply if their bodies happen to produce higher levels of testosterone.

In the case of Semenya, her ordeal has been humiliating and has deeply affected her running career. To this day, despite her clearing from the IAAF, she has been ridiculed and intimidated to not compete. She has to face her competitors on the line not with just the focus of beating them in 800 meters on her mind, but also with the constant thought that they are judging her. Her condition has been with her since birth and is not something she had an control of—she has not participated in any enhancement drugs or has done anything illegal, she is simply running with the body and mind that she was born with. With her condition, she faces enough hardship from the people around her who do not understand, and taking running yet again away from her would ruin the only success that she has come to know.

Semenya personally identifies as female, and all who know her see her as such as well. Living a hard but simple life, she was not accustomed to even understanding that she was different while growing up. In her poor district, it would have been nearly impossible to receive the type of medical treatment in order to remove the male genitalia inside of her (many intersexes get extra organs removed at birth in order to better fit into one gender category, as well as to reduce the major health problems that may come from having two sets of reproductive organs). It is unfair to expect that she should have received this procedure earlier when she may not have even had knowledge that she was different, or that being different was considered “wrong” by some.

Denying Semenya the right to compete is prejudice in the same way that denying someone with another type of genetic mutation is. It would be inconceivable to deny someone who suffered from a certain mental disorder or physical ailment to compete just because they were different in those ways. Track and field is a test of your body’s athleticism, and these bodies come in varying sizes, shapes and abilities. It can be argued that those with longer legs have a larger, faster stride; that those who are taller can more easily jump over hurdles and that those that those of different skin colors or races have faster or slower twitch muscles, allowing them to generate quicker turnovers. These genetic differences may be advantageous, but they are natural parts of their respective bodies and those people would never be denied the right to utilize their advantages. Michael Phelps has abnormally long limbs, much longer than the average swimmer let alone average person, and these limbs are often credited with helping him win gold in races; he has stronger swim times and longer arm span on his last push because of them. We would never even think of this difference as unfair and deny him his medals.

Semenya is in the same right as the above mentioned athletes—she was born a certain way and is embracing her body for what it is, without shame. We would be wise to do the same, to learn how to accept differences. Though Semenya should (and probably will) undergo surgical treatments in order to remove her undescended testes, as not doing so can bring on health problems for the future, she should not be punished or denied any right that any other athlete is granted. While gender testing should be administered to all professional athletes, this test should only weed out the unlikely scenario that males are competing as females, and to make sure equality reigns in sporting events. It is time that we start recognizing this woman for her athletic success, not her genetic makeup. Caster Semenya has done no wrong and deserves to be known for her records on the track, not her personal medical records.


Megan DiTrolio is a sophomore from Newtown Square, PA. She is majoring in Writing Seminars.


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