Caster Semenya will face judgment whether she runs fast or slow
LONDON -- At this Olympics, there have been riveting stories of a table tennis player with no right hand, a double-amputee sprinter, an eight-months pregnant shooter and women competing for Brunei, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia for the first time (albeit little more than symbolically in the case of Saudi Arabia). Not to mention personal triumph-over-tragedy in nearly every shade of the perseverance-spectrum imaginable. But none of them can quite relate to the situation of South African 800-meter runner -- and flag bearer -- Caster Semenya, who won her 800 semifinal in 1 minute, 57.67 seconds to advance to the final on Saturday. If Semenya wins the gold, she is likely to be accused of having an unfair advantage. If she runs poorly, she is likely to be accused of sandbagging the race so as not to be accused of having an unfair advantage.
On the track, there is perhaps no greater wildcard in London in terms of performance. Prior to 2009, Semenya was an unknown in the world of professional track and field, with a personal best in the 800 meters of 2:04.23. Fast, but not nearly Olympics-qualifying fast. Then at the '09 world championships in Berlin, then-18-year-old Semenya just about accomplished the feat of overshadowing Usain Bolt when she pulled away from the field -- with the easy expression of someone out for a stroll -- to win in 1:55.45, two-and-a-half seconds ahead of second place. It was a performance that was sure to provoke questions, but what followed was not the usual set of questions. Rather than drugs, the focus turned to Semenya's biological sex.
The combination of her stunning drop in time, her deep voice, and her armor-like torso elicited venom from some of her competitors. "Just look at her," said world championships fifth place finisher Mariya Savinova, of Russia. But biological sex is much more complex than just looking at someone. The IAAF -- the governing body for track and field -- tried that back in the 1960s, amid concerns that burly Eastern bloc women (some of whom were on intense doping regimen) might actually be men masquerading for a competitive advantage. So female athletes had to drop their pants for inspecting doctors.
By the '68 Olympics in Mexico City, that demeaning process was canned and replaced by cheek swabs that were analyzed for chromosomes. Men have XY, and women have XX, except when they don't. There have been cases, for example, of female athletes who have XY chromosomes but are insensitive to testosterone, and therefor develop entirely as women. (Perhaps most notably María Jose Martínez-Patiño, a Spanish hurdler who was stripped of her 1986 national championship when she "failed" a chromosome test. Martínez-Patiño is insensitive to male hormones, and was reinstated, but only after her life and career were left in shambles.) Faced with such possibilities, the IAAF got out of the sex-testing business in '91, and the IOC followed suit before the 2000 Games in Sydney. Still, the bodies reserved the right to conduct tests in specific cases.
Before the '09 world championships, the IAAF 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 (regrettably public) controversy became a touchstone for anyone who wanted to put forth an opinion about gender, femininity or the biology of sex. 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. This means 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. (However, neither Semenya nor anyone in her camp is obliged to or did ever publicly address the accuracy of report.)
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.
When Semenya returned to running, she was much slower, prompting speculation that she had brokered a deal wherein she would undergo feminizing hormone treatment in return for eligibility to race. (Again, Semenya has not commented on such matters, so it is speculation.) Since her return, Semenya has had some exceptional races, like a 1:56.35 at last year's world championships that earned her the silver.
Even then, though, the style of her racing prompted speculation that she had lost on purpose. Semenya appeared to have command of the race, only to slow down and get passed in the final straight. After the line, she looked hardly winded, prompting suggestions that she slowed down in order to defray another controversy. But Semenya's coach Maria Mutola of Mozambique, the greatest women's 800-meter runner of all time, told SI that Semenya always looks effortless, even when she's exhausted.
"I have to say, that's how she is," Mutola says. Mutola, who ran in six Olympics between 1988 and 2008, says that she has talked to Semenya about ignoring the spotlight and distractions. "It's going to be very important for her to concentrate," she says. "That's why I'm glad I'm here and I'm glad we're talking."
As far as the competitors that criticized her in '09, it seems that, in some measure, how they perceive Semenya has a lot to do with whether or not they are in front of or behind her. At '11 worlds, Mariya Savinova (of "Just look at her" fame) beat Semenya to gold, and then the two hugged. Now, as she approaches the finals of the 800 meters, the only certainty for Semenya is that the way some rivals and spectators assess her will rest on how well she runs and how she looks doing it.