While being sidelined from the sport she loves hasn’t been easy, Olympic gold medalist Caster Semenya says fighting for the right to compete has helped her accept the rules that restrict her from running.
“At the moment, my priorities [are] on levelling the sport, advocating for what is right,” she told The Sunday Magazine host Piya Chattopadhyay.
“I believe in fighting the injustice. I believe in diversity and inclusivity. I believe in advocating for human rights, and that’s me…. I’m in peace. I’m good.”
The middle-distance runner, 32, from South Africa hasn’t been allowed to compete in distances from 400 metres to one mile (1,609 metres) since 2019, when governing body World Athletics instituted a policy that requires women like Semenya, who have high levels of testosterone, to take medication that suppresses the hormone if they want to race.
Semenya says she took the medication for a period of time, but has since stopped saying it “tortured” her body.
For the past five years, Semenya has been fighting a legal battle with World Athletics over its testosterone limit for women. The court challenges started in 2018, and led to three appeals by Semenya — the last of which she won in July.
However, Semenya says her advocacy work — and her personal story, which she chronicles in a new memoir titled The Race to Be Myself — won’t be over until men in sporting organizations stop making rules over women’s bodies.
“Fighting for this injustice, that’s what I’m going to do … Fight for women, make sure that women are respected, women’s sports is respected,” she said.
In 2008, Semenya started to make waves for her stellar performance at junior competitions. But in the lead-up to the 2009 World Championships in Berlin, World Athletics requested that Semenya take invasive gender tests to determine her eligibility.
Despite winning gold at the competition, both the public and media’s attention fixated on her gender and questioned the fairness of her competing among other women athletes.
A laundry list of “humiliating” tests were performed to verify Semenya’s sex, including a physician’s exam and reports from a gynecologist, psychologist, endocrinologist and a gender expert. Documents with private details leaked to the press in 2009 later revealed that Semenya has “differences in sex development,” or DSD.
The diagnosis came as news to Semenya and was incredibly difficult to deal with, she says.
“Here you are, you are new in the game and … you’re not enough,” she said.
“To process that, it becomes hard because you don’t know who to trust. You don’t know who to talk to. It was hell.”
Semenya says hormone treatments to lower her testosterone levels made her feel nauseous, depressed and mentally drained. She had trouble sleeping and experienced panic attacks, but she lived with the pain because she wanted to be an Olympic champion.
“That’s the extent you can go, because the only thing that makes sense to you is the language of sports. The only thing that makes sense to you is to go out there, because that’s the only place where you are safe,” she said.
In 2015, World Athletics’ testosterone limit policy was suspended after a court challenge, allowing Semenya to compete without hormone therapy for four years — including at the 2012 and 2016 Olympics where she won gold medals — before it was reinstated. In 2019, the rule was changed to limit the allowed amount of testosterone for women even further, from 10 nanomoles per litre of blood to five. The limit has since been lowered even further to 2.5 nanomoles.