LAUSANNE, AUGUST 12, 2019 – Caster Semenya’s genuine hope of defending her 800-metres title at the World Championships in September ran into a brick wall on July 30 after the Swiss Court ruling. But even in her absence, the South African superstar would most likely share in Doha’s riveting spotlight and global headlines, while having her stern stare fiercely fixated on defending her gender identity.
“Everybody will speak and think about Semenya before, during, and after the race,” says L’Equipe Editor, Marc Ventouillac.
The 28-year-old, who has shown no signs of slowing down, surely deserves that much attention, having monopolized the women’s 800m event in the last decade.
However, the recurring scepticism surrounding her femininity keeps clashing with her enviable athleticism. She breezes past competitors as though they do not exist, breaks away swiftly with a devastating kick to establish unrivalled supremacy, but leaves a trail of uncomfortable debates in her wake.
I AM A WOMAN “I am Mokgadi Caster Semenya. I am a woman and I am fast,” the double Olympic champion declared in a statement in June 2018, while announcing that she would challenge the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) over its controversial eligibility regulations that restrict testosterone levels in female athletes.
Semenya lost her case against the athletics’ governing body in the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) on May 1, 2019, but ran a staggering world lead of 1min 54.98sec – the third-fastest 800m victory of her career – two days later in Doha to prove that “actions speak louder than words”, while also noting that “when you are a great champion, you always deliver”.
‘SUPERB ATHLETE’ After months of delay due to Semenya’s appeal to CAS, the IAAF’s rules eventually came into effect on May 8. The South African then countered with another appeal to the Federal Supreme Court of Switzerland and subsequently won a temporary suspension of the rules. The reprieve, however, only lasted two months and hence this “great champion”, who has defiantly refused to be subjected to testosterone-suppressing medication, is barred from this year’s World Championships.
Australian journalist Tracey Holmes acknowledges that, “Caster’s absence will mean the world misses out on watching a superb athlete, one of the world’s best, defend her title.” The only other time Semenya missed the biennial athletics event since becoming a professional, was in 2013, due to injury.
MEDAL CERTAINTY Athletics South Africa (ASA), which had provisionally selected their revered middle-distance runner for Qatar, has definitely been dealt a significantly huge blow. “She would have been a certainty for a medal in the 800m and had an outside chance in the 1500m,” South African journalist Ockert de Villiers explains.
“It is still uncertain whether 400m world champion Wayde van Niekerk will be competing but it is not looking good. World long jump champion Luvo Manyonga has not been as dominant as in 2017 thanks largely to the emergence of Cuban phenom Juan Miguel Echevarria.”
AIPS Vice President Evelyn Watta also agrees that Semenya would be a “big miss” for South Africa because she has been one of the country’s “key medal favourites” ever since she caught the world by surprise as an 18-year-old on August 19, 2009. This teenager, who grew up in a village called Fairlie in South Africa’s Limpopo province, blew away a field comprising the world’s most famous athletes on her World Championships debut in Berlin, in the face of intense gender controversy, and returned home to a rousing reception with thousands of people singing and dancing at the OR Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg.
DIMINISHED INTEREST Ten years later and looking ahead to Doha, Watta believes the absence of the three-time world champion will make room for a new star to emerge in the women’s 800m. “Certainly it’s going to make the (women) 800m race one of those to watch to see who will be the next star because we have only known Semenya for about 10 years,” she says.
BBC’s Ade Adedoyin also thinks Semenya’s absence “is an opportunity for one of the other athletes to win a first global senior title.” Holmes, on the other hand, says “not having the champion there diminishes my interest”.
“The Swiss Federal Supreme Court concluded, in a first summary examination, that Caster Semenya’s appeal did not appear with high probability to be well-founded,” the Swiss court said in a statement.
HUMAN RIGHTS However, Semenya, who still possess the mental toughness that saw her through an 11-month suspension – due to a gender verification process – early in her career, is determined to continue fighting “for the human rights of all of the female athletes concerned”.
According to reports, Semenya was likely taking hormone medication when she finished second behind Russia’s Mariya Savinova in the 800 meters at the World Championships in Daegu, South Korea in 2011 and London 2012 Olympics. Her silver medals were later upgraded to gold in 2017 after Savinova was banned for doping.
But in that period when the IAAF’s hyperandrogenism regulations were implemented (2011-2015), Semenya’s performances were obviously below her best, including failing to reach the women’s 800 final at the World Championships in 2015. She definitely does not want a repeat of that phase and, in the interview with Ade, advised that “people should not make the mistakes that l’ve made before”.
WAIT-AND-SEE “It seems Caster is prepared to fight on,” says Holmes.
“This is a battle that has several fronts – medical, cultural, sociological and ethical. Caster seems prepared to jump any hurdle placed in front of her so it seems this battle still has a long way to go.”
But Marc Ventouillac thinks the ruling by the Swiss supreme court marks the end of the road for Semenya. “It’s not the final decision, but when you read it, you can see there is no hope of the Swiss Federal Court overruling the CAS decision.”
When asked about how South Africa reacted to the news that their hero will be missing the World Championships, Ockert responds: “It has been relatively muted. It seems like we have taken a wait-and-see approach holding our breath for the outcome of the appeal before the Swiss Federal Supreme Court.”
The top three finishers in the women’s 800m at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games are all athletes with differences of sexual development (DSD) and are expected to comply with the IAAF regulations if they wish to compete in any of the events ranging from 400m to a mile in Doha. At the moment only Semenya’s absence is confirmed. Other athletes with DSD Burundi’s Francine Niyonsaba, the 2016 Olympic silver medallist and Kenya’s Margret Wambui, the bronze holder from Rio, will also be missing from the Doha entry list.
ONE TO WATCH In the absence of the aforementioned trio, Ade and Ockert have settled for a new favourite in Ajee Wilson from the United States. “She won a bronze medal at the last world championships and is the second fastest woman in the event this season behind Semenya,” says Ade. “It will be interesting to see if she will get close to her best which she set before the 2017 London World Championships where she finished third behind Semenya and Niyonsaba,” Ockert adds. In the words of Kenyan journalist Watta, “Doha might be the end of careers for Semenya and the others but it’s the start for those who were not able to win a medal because of the dominance of the three athletes with DSD.”
However, Ockert is of the opinion that “some would question the legitimacy of the women’s 800m medallists in the absence of Caster Semenya, who has been the dominant force in the two-lap event since the end of 2015”. Marc agrees: “Everybody will say ‘if Caster was there, she would have won’; but for history, the winner in Doha will be world champion.”
JUSTIFICATION? But without Caster, Francine and Margaret, will the outcome of the race mean justification for the IAAF? “Yes,” Marc replies. “The outcome mean justification for IAAF because there will be no debate or discussion after the victory about the “sex” of the winner.” Evelyn also reckons that the competition in Doha will be “fair”.
On his part, Ockert points out that one of the problems associated with the IAAF regulations is that: “we are already placing people in boxes like ‘DSD or non-DSD’”.
Tracey does not think it is possible to say the IAAF’s position is justified since the pivotal case is still in court. “There is such heated and emotional debate around this topic with some scientists and portions of the medical community disagreeing with others who say it is a necessary discrimination to prevent women with naturally occurring high testosterone levels from competing in some events. There is no discussion about other genetic advantages that might preclude some competitors from events, only this one, which leads one to ask, why?”