By David Epstein
July 27, 2011

One year out from the London Olympics, Caster Semenya is perhaps the biggest wild card in the history of track and field. Will we see the Semenya of 2009 who looked unbeatable and destined to break the nearly three decade old 800-meter world record? Or has the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) forced her to undergo some feminizing medical treatment, in order to be allowed to compete as a woman, that will progressively slow her down? Semenya is simply an unknown, just as she was coming into the '09 world track and field championships.

Before the '09 season, Semenya's best time over 800-meters was 2:04.23. Respectable, but not competitive in a world championship race. So when, at the '09 world championships, the 18-year-old South African looked over her shoulder on the home stretch and pulled clear of the field with such placid ease that it made Usain Bolt seem tense in comparison, there were bound to be questions. In the sport of track and field, one does not go from 2:04.23 to 1:55.45, winning the world title by two-and-a-half seconds, in a single season without questions. But these were not the usual questions. Rather than drugs, the focus was on Semenya's biological sex.

Semenya's deep voice, chiseled abs, and the fact that she became only the second woman of the millennium to run under 1:55.5 provoked instant derision from her competitors. "Just look at her," said world championships fifth place finisher Mariya Savinova, of Russia. But the trouble is that biological sex cannot be determined by just looking at someone. Before the Worlds final, IAAF, the governing body of track and field, had quietly asked Athletics South Africa to conduct a complex battery of tests to determine whether Semenya should be eligible to compete against women. The South African federation allegedly did so, but did not inform Semenya what the tests were for, and then turned a defiant face to the IAAF and the world -- South Africa's sports minister threatened "the Third World war" if Semenya were to be barred from competing with women -- when it was leaked that there were questions among track and field officials about Semenya's sex that could jeopardize her eligibility.

The saga became a global cause célèbre for anyone interested in voicing his or her opinion about gender, race, femininity, or the biology of sex, which, it turns out, is not always so cut and dry as the competitive categories of male and female would lead one to believe. Following the world championships, Semenya underwent more sex determination tests, the results of which reportedly showed that while Semenya has external female genitalia, she has internal testes, no womb or ovaries, and elevated levels of testosterone, which would mean that she has what doctors call a disorder of sexual development, and has some traits that are typically associated with women and others that are typically associated with men. Semenya disappeared from competition for a year as rumors swirled about whether she would ever again be eligible to compete with women. Most of the world, interested only in the sex determination controversy, moved on from her story. But track enthusiasts eagerly awaited news of Semenya's return. After all, based on her performance in Berlin, it was quite clear that Semenya stood to dominate her event for a decade and was capable of breaking the 800-meter world record that has stood since 1983.

In July 2010, after a year-long hiatus, Semenya appeared at a low key meet in Finland and easily trounced a weak 800-meter field in 2:04.22. "It's a new beginning," Semenya said after the race. But the extent of the newness was left to the speculation of track and field fans. For the first time in her drama on the world stage, a modicum of discretion prevailed and the content of whatever discussions Semenya had with IAAF regarding her medical tests and her return to competition remained private.

Her one-year absence fueled speculation that a deal had been brokered wherein Semenya would undergo feminizing medical treatments, such as hormone therapy, in return for being allowed to compete. Consider her situation: if Semenya returns and wins races, her competitors and perhaps the world continue to talk about her unfair advantage; if she loses races, it is taken as proof that she had feminizing medical treatment and that she will get progressively slower. And yet, somehow Semenya has managed something in between. Since her return, Semenya has won several races, but she has not come within four seconds of her Berlin time. In other races, she has finished second or third but looked so effortless that spectators have suggested that she is holding back on purpose so as not to reignite controversy. In a race in Oslo last month, Semenya led easily into the home stretch, and then appeared just to relax and coast while two athletes zoomed past before the finish. So the stages of Semenya have been thus: unknown, worldbeater, enigma. And she's only 20.

No statements have emerged from either Semenya's camp or the IAAF regarding what measures, if any, were taken during Semenya's absence from competition to ensure that she is competing on level ground. Semenya herself has only said that it was difficult for her not to know whether she would be eligible, and that she was not training enthusiastically during her layoff. So the subpar races could be simply the signature of an athlete who had an unwelcome break from competition and is now ramping up her fitness. Or it could be the first signs of medical treatments that are changing her body. We don't know, and, if private medical information is to be kept private this time around, we may never know, making Semenya perhaps the greatest wild card in the history of track and field. At full form, she is undoubtedly a world record caliber performer. The only safe bet is that if Semenya wins gold in London, it's going to be controversial. And if Semenya finishes last, it's going to be controversial. As always, no one knows what to expect from the young South African world champ.

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