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Caster Semenya: Overcoming the Controversy

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Caster Semenya: Overcoming the Controversy

Caster Semenya on her way to winning the 800-meter World championship in 2009.

Michael Steele/Getty Images
In an ideal athletic world, Caster Semenya would simply be known as the women’s 800-meter World champion of 2009. En route to her victory, however, word spread that she was undergoing gender testing. Semenya had been plagued by questions about her physique for many years. Her rapid improvement in the 800 also raised suspicions that she used performance-enhancing drugs. Today, it’s clear that her physique is not drug-enhanced. It’s what she was born with. And while the results of her gender tests are private, she’s been cleared to compete as a woman, and returned to the track briefly in 2010, before being sidelined with an injury. She returned to 800- and 1500-meter competition in early 2011.

Gender questions:

Semenya’s gender tests began in South Africa on Aug. 7, 2009. Word of the testing leaked just hours before her triumph in Berlin, where she won the World championship in 1:55.45. Further testing was performed in Berlin. She missed about nine months of competition – a de facto suspension – as the tests were analyzed by an IAAF medical panel. She was finally cleared to compete on July 6, 2010, but her brief season was cut even shorter by a back injury that forced her to withdraw from the Commonwealth Games.

Soccer controversy:

Questions regarding Semenya’s physique didn’t begin at the World Championships. She grew up playing soccer in South Africa, where opposing coaches frequently raised questions about her gender, so her coaches always brought her birth certificate to games. But the document didn’t satisfy all dissenters. According to one of Semenya’s teachers, “Some schools … demanded that her status be checked. But each time they returned from the toilet, she would be cleared and the competition would resume.” She was disqualified from playing competitive women’s football at age 14 because coaches said she was “too rough with the other girls.” It was shortly thereafter that she turned to track and field.

Breakthrough:

Semenya lowered her personal best from 2:00.58 to a stunning 1:56.72 to win the African Junior 800-meter championship in July 2009, shortly before the Berlin World Championships. The performance was a world-leading effort at that time, and broke South Africa’s senior record by more than two seconds. She also won the 2009 African Junior 1500-meter title.

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