The Sunday Long Read: Caster Semenya Is Not The Problem

It's time to accept that all extraordinary athletes are just that: extra ordinary

Photo: Yann Caradec/Wikimedia Commons/The XC illustration

Word count: 2,006

Reading time: 10 minutes

Preamble: Periodically, we’ll drop a more in-depth essay, op-ed piece or feature story into your inbox called “The Sunday Long Read.” Think of it as a long run, but for your brain.

This week, Michael Doyle writes about the lingering case of Caster Semenya and intersex athletes in sport. Earlier this year, a trio of 800m runners were barred from competing at the IAAF World Championships in Doha, including Semenya, who was the reigning 800m world champ. The question lingers: where does the sport go from here?


I’ve changed my mind about what I think should “be done” about Caster Semenya. I used to think she had an unfair advantage; that she was imploding her event by being unbeatable, and perhaps dismantling the future of women’s running. Now I think her impossible situation suggests more about us than it does her, and that we have to change. More on that later.

Why This Is Such a Big Deal

For those of you who aren’t 100% clear on the controversy surrounding the South African 800m runner, I’d recommend setting aside some time (after reading my little essay on the matter, of course) to read this exceptional New Yorker profile from several years ago, or just skip straight to this science-oriented breakdown of Semenya’s predicament. For now, I’ll sum up her running resume and the controversy it has caused, briefly:

Semenya emerged onto the track scene with dominant wins as a junior, and then as an 18-year-old at the 2009 IAAF World Championships in Berlin. Her performances were almost immediately called into question because of her rapid improvement (she lopped off several seconds from her 800m time over a very short period.) Many were also murmuring about her “masculine appearance.” She was subsequently forced to undergo sex identification testing, which was, of course, leaked to the public, and no doubt a humiliating experience. She reportedly wasn’t aware she was submitting to testing when she did, which is another disgusting layer to this ugly debacle.

Semenya is intersex, which is defined by being born with XY chromosomes. Initially, there was a lot of confusion between “sex” and “gender.” It seems we as a society are figuring this out. “Maleness” from a scientific vantage point has traditionally been defined by the presence of a Y chromosome, and the level of testosterone that a Y chromosome carrier can produce. This op-ed piece in the New York Times calls into question our understanding of testosterone as a performance enhancer. Nevertheless, Semenya’s T levels are seen as the clear reason for her unbeatable performances by World Athletics (which recently changed its name from the IAAF), the governing body of the sport:

“The I.A.A.F. will maintain its position that there are some contexts, sport being one of them, where biology has to trump gender identity.”

The idea of men’s and women’s divisions in sport is an important basis for what’s seen as fair and equal competition. Without this division women and girls would be robbed of athletic opportunities. Track and distance running have led the way as being proactive and, for the most part, truly egalitarian—elevating women’s racing to the same status as men’s events. Few other sports can boast that an elite female athlete can make the same money from competing as a man (look no further than what the US women’s soccer team has endured for pay equity as a prime example). And in countries like Kenya, where women otherwise still struggle to find empowerment, marathon champions have become powerful public figures because of their financial success and fame.

The existence of Caster Semenya poses an existential threat to all of that, according to some of the biggest names in the sport. Malcolm Gladwell tweeted this out, which is a powerful argument in favour of determining sex based on androgen testing. It’s certainly worth reading:

World Athletics, the group of mostly old European dudes in Monaco whom govern running at a global level, has been trying to have Semenya and others like her removed from women’s competition for years. (Yes, you read that right: the World Athletics actually has its operations in Monaco. I’ve always thought they should really just finish off the look and run meetings from an underground lair.)

It all seemed to come to a head when Semenya crushed a world class field with relative ease at the 2016 Olympics in Rio. Watching that race, it felt inevitable. Many in the media took pity upon those whom were clearly competing for silver on down. Here in Canada, Melissa Bishop, a once-in-a-generation talent, seemed almost resigned to the fact that she wasn’t competing for a shot at gold, but instead maybe a podium spot, at best. Other competitors vocalized their frustration with considerably less tact (and outright racism).

And so, it was almost just as inevitable when World Athletics won the right to effectively either ban Semenya or force her to take drugs to lower her testosterone levels and alter her natural body chemistry. There’s a painful irony that an organization that has so poorly curbed athletes from taking performance enhancing drugs over the years, is now imposing restrictions upon one of its clean stars to take drugs in order to weaken her performances.

Semenya Shouldn’t Have to Change, the Sport Should

After covering this story for more than seven years, I’ve watched Semenya’s plight become weaponized by opposing political points of view. I suspect that quite a few weighing in today have little care for Semenya or the sport. But I have to admit, my view has also shifted. The Semenya situation has me asking larger philosophical questions about the nature of sport and how to best classify competition.

I think sport should be engaging, both for the athletes and for its fans. Far too often, our sport doesn’t know how to promote itself as an entertainment. And when it does, it’s this guy’s idea of fun:

Seb Coe, World Athletics President

Instead of celebrating Semenya, as we have a world beater like Usain Bolt, we’ve cast her extraordinary streak as shameful and freakish (not the good Boltian flavour of freakishness, but the bad, she-makes-us-feel-like-she’s-done-something-wrong freakishness). World Athletics and other major stakeholders in this sport had a choice: lift her up and celebrate her greatness, or shame her out of the sport. They chose the latter. What side of history will they end up on, I wonder?

“The Death of Women’s Sport”

Semenya’s detractors have become emboldened, and those who care about women’s running the most do have a lot to lose. Paula Radcliffe has perhaps been the most recognized voice, saying the following in the lead up to the ruling:

“Will it open the door up there to transgender athletes actually being able to say: ‘You know what, we don’t need to bring our (testosterone) levels down either, we don’t need to have any surgery, we can just identify how we feel and we can come in and compete in women’s sport?’

“That would be the death of women’s sport.”

Radcliffe is probably right, in a sense. Yes, athletes like Semenya are markedly better than their peers, and may be gaining an advantage beyond hard work, mental resolve and preparedness (although, I imagine Semenya does all those things well also.) But Radcliffe is an interesting case herself. Her (now former) marathon world record of 2:15:25 hadn’t been legitimately threatened for 16 years until it was suddenly demolished this fall by Brigid Kosgei. During those 16 years, Radcliffe’s performance was considered perhaps the most impressive world record in sports. But how is it that literally thousands of runners over that long period hadn’t come within 90 seconds of her time? I’ve been told by people whom know her well that Radcliffe was just smarter about training, more meticulous and perfectly suited for the distance, capitalizing on a confluence of all those little advantages to execute a performance that withstood constant battery by doped East Africans and even doped shoes (oh, and if you ever wondered what Radcliffe’s world record would have been with the Vaporfly Next% bonus, it’d be around a 2:09).

My point here is that, while I believe Radcliffe that she was a clean athlete, I also think she had a physiological advantage that others, even among the best in the world, clearly lack; just as Usain Bolt, Michael Phelps and others did. We aren’t able to articulate this edge these super “talents” have because we currently lack the technology to specifically identify these genetic markers in an athlete such as Radcliffe. Semenya’s disadvantage then, is that her edge is merely detectable with our current methods of analysis.

Our great champions have more in common with Semenya than they do the bulk of their competition: they have a physical gift that rendered their event boring while they were at the peak of their powers. Some find that exciting. We all watched in awe when Bolt dominated the competition for nearly a decade, and were astonished when he fell from grace in his final race ever at the 2017 World Championships. It was like watching a God being slain. Yet, our ignorance about just how these athletes became dominant—beyond the mythology surrounding “just wanting it more”—allowed us to remain naive about the true nature of their greatness.

Enter Cheap Genome Testing

A geneticist friend of mine suggests that none of this will matter soon. She points out that, eventually, we’ll all have had our genomes sequenced, as the technology is becoming so cheap that it’s only a matter of time before we all are aware of our pre-baked strengths, and weaknesses (thanks, 23andMe). Just as we turned over much of our personal data to tech companies a generation ago, expect to be presented with a similarly irresistible Faustian pact in the coming years. Then we will all at least know where each of us stands when it comes to our true “talents.”

When this happens, will we will discover exactly why someone like Eliud Kipchoge can run under two hours for the marathon (he probably naturally produces more red blood cells than even the best marathoners in the world), while other world-class runners struggle to break 2:10; or how Usain Bolt can own the three fastest 100m times ever, even when competing against a legion of dopers.

And what will we do with other genetic disorders that happen to also provide a physical edge? myostatin-related muscle hypertrophy is one example pointed out to me by my geneticist pal: those with the disorder have an extremely low body fat count and as much as twice the amount of muscle of the typical person, with zero known health drawbacks. Yes, those muscley toddlers in YouTube videos. How can you compete against that in a strength-based event? You can’t. It’s not hard to imagine that someone with this disorder could become unbeatable at pretty much any sport. And once we’re able to figure out how to reliably edit out the myostatin gene, or say, punch up our ability to produce EPO, the protein that manages our red blood cell production, Kipchoge-style, what will happen to sport then?

Again, paraphrasing the aforementioned geneticist, this entire idea of a purely and magically talented athlete will get tossed once we are able to illustrate just how they got there, in terms of their genomic makeup. And if we are unable to detect gene editing, athletes will become more like Formula 1 cars than fallible flesh and bones.

Perhaps only then will we be forced to figure out how to best evaluate performance. Who knows, maybe the 2032 Olympic marathon will be won not by the person who breaks the tape, but by whomever ran it closest to their maximum physical potential.

Semenya Loses, We Lose More

There is currently no great answer to the Semenya debacle. Forcing her to take inhibiting drugs is cruel and unusual. And judging her performances as being “unnatural” is just as ugly. She was raised as a “woman” and has the right to that gender designation. I don’t think that it should be up to Caster Semenya to carry the burden we have assigned to her existence. That’s not her problem—that’s ours. It is time to start being creative about how we evaluate performance, and redefine what is fair. We should begin planning for the era of post-genome ignorance.

I’ll leave the subject for now with this: Semenya discovered she’d lost her appeal and on the same day showed up at the Diamond League track meet in Doha—the very location she would subsequently not be invited to in order to defend her World title. She wasn’t scheduled to run the meet, but decided to enter in what could have, at the time, been her last-ever race. She won—her 30th win in a row. I don’t care what side of the debate you fall on. It’s inarguable that showing up for that race took guts. Winning, with all the emotion and scrutiny descending upon her on that day, is something only a legend can accomplish, regardless of her “advantage.”

We used to like winners. We used to celebrate legends. If Semenya is done with the sport, that win was as if to say, “that’s more of a shame for you than it is me.” It seems that Caster Semenya’s career will be long over by the time we figure out who we really are.