Caster Semenya has laid bare the pain she has suffered having had her womanhood questioned during a glittering athletic career dogged by controversy and debate.
The South African middle-distance runner, who was her country’s premiere track athlete for more than a decade, has an intersex condition meaning she has naturally high levels of testosterone, increased muscle mass, and XY chromosomes.
Having never questioned her identity, and having retained a dignified silence while competing, Semenya has long been the subject of fierce debate in the sports community over her status as a female athlete.
“Being told ‘you’re not enough, you’re not woman enough’ – it can be disturbing,” Semenya told an audience in London on Tuesday night.
The South African, who won gold medals in the 800m in 2012 and 2016 Olympic Games, is now unable to compete in track events without taking testosterone-reducing drugs.
Her mere presence on the track has acted as a lightning rod for debate. While some have argued that she should not be allowed to compete against other women, some have called for a greater understanding of the spectrum of womanhood across sport.
Though she always knew she was “different”, Semenya, now 32, discovered that she has the intersex condition 5α-Reductase 2 deficiency after mandatory sex testing by the World Athletics board.
In the live conversation with Elle editor-in-chief Kenya Hunt, Semenya opened up about having the athletic authorities question her identity.
“It was a very bad experience. I was just 18 – my only priority was running. I was about the competition, and making sure I could compete. When I was asked to do the gender testing, I cannot describe the feeling because I didn’t feel anything.
“I knew that I’m a ‘different’ girl, but I was being told ‘you’re not enough, you’re not woman enough’. It can be disturbing.”
Since then, she has been banned from competing on several occasions, unless she agreed to take medication to lower her natural testosterone levels.
In 2018, World Athletics (previously called the IAAF) announced that athletes with certain disorders of sex development (DSD) would be required to take medication to lower their testosterone levels below the 5 nmol/L threshold for at least six months in order to compete in the female classification.
These rules apply to events including the 400m, 800m, and 1500m races, which Semenya mainly competed in.
In response, Semenya launched a legal case accusing World Athletics of what she terms discrimination against athletes with DSDs. In July, the court found that she was discriminated against by rules which forced her to lower her testosterone levels in order to continue competing.
A further case will be heard at the European Court of Human Rights later this month, in which Semenya hopes to overturn requirements that female athletes such as herself have to medically change their testosterone levels in order to compete in female competitions.
But before she fought against their rulings, Semenya tried to adhere to the athletics board’s requirements, and took oestrogen pills for at least two years from 2009. According to her, the medication had an immediate negative effect on her body and mind.
“To be honest, it was hell. When you’re desperate, you do anything to get what you want,” she explained to the audience.
“For me, I did what I had to do to be a champion. But it wasn’t an easy journey. This medication was not designed for my body, because I’m different. It’s designed to balance the imbalances of hormones of women who have a heavy flow, and things like that. But for me, because I’m a woman who’s different, I don’t go through cycles. I don’t have a uterus, I don’t have fallopian tubes… I was never happy, always irritated. I was not myself.”
In her new memoir, The Race to Be Myself, Semenya acknowledges that although people in the medical community and elsewhere may call her an intersex person, she resists calling herself such as she merely considers herself a woman. She writes: “Even though I understand that those in the medical community call me an ‘intersex’ person because of the way my internal organs are structured, I do not call myself ‘intersex’. That identity doesn’t fit me, it doesn’t fit my soul.”
Throughout this ordeal, Semenya has remained steadfast in her own knowledge of who she is, never wavering to the pressures of others to redefine who she is. She explained that this came from her parents’ commitment to instilling self-love from a young age.
“The relationship I have with my parents is the most special thing, because they allowed me to be the young girl I was,” she explained. “They never questioned my deeds, they made sure that in everything that I do, I’m happy. They’ve given me love, they’ve given me support, they made sure that when I’m out there, I’ve got myself.
“They reminded me that authenticity is the best outfit that you can rock,” Semenya continued. “What they’ve done for my life, they’ve allowed me to have total ownership of me, as I am.”
The Race to Be Myself by Caster Semenya is out now.