South Africa’s Caster Semenya divides opinion in Rio Olympic debut

  • Associated Press, Rio de Janeiro
  • Updated: Aug 18, 2016 07:55 IST
South Africa's Caster Semenya (right) competes in the women's 800-metre heat at the Olympic stadium in Rio de Janeiro on Wednesday. (AP)

The Olympic Games is running into a storm of controversy involving Caster Semenya, the favourite in the women’s 800 meters. The South African, the unwilling face of track’s ethical and medical dilemma over women with high levels of testosterone, sharply divides opinion — even among fellow competitors.

After qualifying comfortably on Wednesday for the 800 semifinals, Semenya strode past reporters without talking. Her competitors had plenty to say. Some embraced the 25-year-old as just another competitor, while others said they’d rather see women in her situation in separate races.

Suspicions among fellow competitors that Semenya isn’t the only 800-metre runner in Rio de Janeiro believed to be hyperandrogenic — a condition that can cause women to produce unusually elevated levels of testosterone — are adding extra urgency to the debate, especially with Olympic medals on the line. Testosterone is a strength-building hormone in both men and, usually in far lower levels, in women. Until last year, there was a threshold limit on testosterone for women athletes. But that is now on hold, leaving some competitors feeling that hyperandrogenic women almost unbeatable in the 800.

“I think that we need separate events for them, and for us,” said Nataliia Lupu of Ukraine, who also qualified for the semis. “You can see that it’s easy for them.”

Semenya, she added, will “definitely win against us, even without using her full strength.”

At the other end of the spectrum of opinion was Tsepang Sello from Lesotho, who did not advance. “She is a woman and she must be allowed to run like us,” Sello said of Semenya. “She is not the only one in the world running as a woman in her condition.”

The general consensus seemed to be that there is no easy solution that would protect the rights of Semenya and those who run against her. Several athletes refused to discuss the issue that has become a minefield for the International Association of Athletics Federations since its rules governing hyperandrogenic women failed to stand up to a legal challenge brought by Indian sprinter Dutee Chand. Under the rules, hyperandrogenic women who wanted to compete could be obliged to lower their testosterone levels to below the IAAF’s required threshold, with surgery or medicinal treatments.

The Court of Arbitration for Sport suspended the rules last year, allowing hyperandrogenic women to run in Rio. Semenya’s times have improved after the ruling.

“It’s a very peculiar situation, almost unheard of in sports as far I as I know,” said Luxembourg runner Charline Mathias, who did not make the semis. “I don’t see how you can stop her from running. A way has to be found. Of course, she has certain advantages. But even with those advantages, she has to work hard. She trains. She suffers. She has worked hard to get here. Plus, she has the eyes of the world upon her. There’s a lot of discussion around her. I’m happy I don’t have to take a decision on all this, because I would not know what to do.”

Semenya has been under unwanted scrutiny ever since word leaked in 2009, just before she won the 800-meter world title as a 19-year-old, that track officials mandated that she undergo sex testing. The IAAF rules were introduced in 2011. She was suspended for 11 months. She came back to win silver at the 2012 London Games, running 1 minute, 57.23 seconds. Her best this season is nearly two seconds quicker.

Semenya has never spoken publicly in detail about her condition. Her default position is generally to talk only about her running. That was the case again on Wednesday, after she ran 1:59.31 to win her heat. She didn’t talk to reporters, but team officials released an audio file.

“I’m just focusing on enjoying my championships,” Semenya said. “Times don’t matter in championships but medals, gold medals, silver or bronze, those are targets.”

Semenya appeared to cruise, only briefly unleashing her power with about 200 to go. “Trying to feel my body first so I can feel comfortable,” she said. “I tried to get in the top two the last 200 so I can win and then I can be safe for the semifinals.”

China’s Wang Chunyu, who ran a personal best behind Semenya but didn’t qualify in fourth, said, “It’s a bit unfair.” “But everyone says (her condition) is natural and that not letting her compete was even more unfair,” she said.

Some athletes said racing against Semenya has forced them to improve. “If anything she has probably helped a lot of us run quite a bit faster this year than we might have otherwise,” said France’s Justine Fedronic, who also failed to advance.

“When you line up against someone like that, you know it’s going to be a completely different ball game,” she added. “I do feel for her. It is probably not something she was aware of most of her life and she is just trying to be out there are train and compete just like the rest of us so that is really not fair to her but it is not fair for others, too. So I don’t know what the solution is. There definitely isn’t a clear one.”

She and other competitors said they are concerned that increasing numbers of hyperandrogenic women will follow Semenya’s lead and dominate if rules to limit their perceived advantage aren’t reintroduced. In its 2015 ruling, the CAS didn’t overturn the rules completely, giving the IAAF until July 2017 to produce evidence that hyperandrogenic women have a significant advantage.

“We don’t feel so great about them because we see the energy they are having is not the same energy we are having,” said Halimah Nakaayi from Uganda. She advanced to the semis with a personal best 1:59.78. “I wish they could form their (own) category because more and more are still coming up.”

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