EUGENE, Ore. — How many times has South Africa’s Caster Semenya charged down the Hayward Field straight seemingly in a different run than the rest of the field, the sport’s most legendary stadium shaking as Semenya was running in the deafening roar?
How many times have America’s most knowledgeable track and field fans, the most passionate crowd, enjoyed the two-time Olympic champion and three-time world champion in the 800 meters?
On a scorching afternoon at the World Championships on Wednesday, Semenya raced the final yards of her 5,000-meter race past a half-empty stadium, largely ignored or unnoticed, even in a place called Tracktown USA.
Semenya, one of the most fascinating and controversial athletes of her generation, has fallen so far off the sport’s radar since 2019 that her best-known competitor on Wednesday didn’t even realize she was in the competition.
“Roulette?” asked Sifan Hassan, the Olympic 5,000 and 10,000 champion from the Netherlands, who raced in a later run on Wednesday.
“Caster Semenya ran the 5,000? Hassan asked again. “I had no idea. I didn’t even know she was here. Did she make it?
Semenya, competing in her first major international competition since winning the World 800 title in 2017, did not qualify for the final, finishing 13th in her heat, running 15 minutes, 46.12 seconds, nearly a minute off Ethiopia’s Gudaf Tsegay’s winning time (14:52.69).
“Kitchen,” Semenya said after the race, referring to the heat. She declined to answer reporters’ questions.
Under different circumstances, the sport would be obsessed with the prospect of a showdown between Semenya, 31, and Athing Mu, the 20-year-old US Olympic champion in Sunday’s 800 final and whether the pair could challenge the record in the world of 1:53.28 established by Jarmila Kratochvilova of Czechoslovakia in 1983.
Instead, Semenya, who was assigned female at birth, raised as a girl and identified as female, did not run the 800 competitions sanctioned by World Athletics, the sport’s international governing body, in because of his refusal to comply with the organization’s guidelines regarding intersex. athletes.
According to World Athletics guidelines, athletes competing in 400-mile events — in other words, Semenya events — are required to take hormone-suppressing drugs to reduce their testosterone to less than 5 nanomoles per liter for at least six months before being allowed to compete at international level. .
Semenya has an intersex condition called Differences in Sex Development (DSD) or 46,XY which, due to differences in sex development, causes both male and female traits and a testosterone level above the typical female range. She is not transgender.
“I’m a woman and I’m a world-class athlete,” Semenya said in 2019, shortly before the Prefontaine Classic, her last 800. “The IAAF won’t drug me or stop me from being who I am. am.”
Semenya had unwittingly found herself at the center of controversy almost as soon as she burst onto the world stage a decade earlier.
She won her first world title in 2009 aged 18, a win that prompted Russia’s Mariya Savinova to suggest the South African was a man.
“Just look at her,” Savinova said.
While Semenya’s sex test results were supposed to be confidential, they were leaked to Australia’s Daily Telegraph. Semenya has internal testicles but no ovaries or uterus, the newspaper reported citing the test report.
“She’s a woman, but maybe not 100 per cent,” IAAF General Secretary Pierre Weiss said at the time, doing nothing to deter headlines from New York’s Daily News that shouted that the world champion “is a woman… and a man”. ”
Semenya started taking a hormone-suppressing drug. She finished second to Savinova at the 2011 Worlds and the 2012 Olympics.
“The IAAF used me in the past as a human guinea pig to experiment with how the drugs they made me take would affect my testosterone levels,” she said in 2019. constantly sickened, the IAAF now wants to apply even stricter thresholds with unknown health consequences.
“I will not allow the IAAF to use me and my body again. But I fear that other female athletes will feel compelled to let the IAAF drug them and test for efficacy and negative effects on the health of different hormonal drugs.This cannot happen.
Semenya received the 2012 Olympic gold medal in 2017, two years after the World Anti-Doping Agency recommended that Savinova be given a lifetime doping ban and her July 2010 results be disqualified.
Given the event’s suspicious history, the irony of World Athletics now demanding she dope to level the playing field is not lost on Semenya.
“I’m not going to do that,” she told the Orange County Register after meeting Prefontaine in 2019. “I’m a very clean athlete. I believe in clean sport. I believe in equal opportunity. Ultimately, it’s a women’s sport, it’s a men’s sport. If they’re gonna come (to) me with this nonsense, then why are you leading?
Semenya challenged the World Athletics guidelines with the Court of Arbitration for Sport. A three-member CAS panel in June 2019 said the World Athletics policy was “discriminatory” against athletes with DSD, but two of the panel members nevertheless agreed with World Athletics that the policy was “necessary, reasonable and proportionate” to counter the advantages of DSD athletes. have on the other competitors. Semenya and other female athletes with DSD should be considered “biological males”, World Athletics told CAS.
The Swiss Supreme Court dismissed Semenya’s appeal in September 2020. She filed an appeal with the European Court of Human Rights in February 2021.
While Semenya failed to meet the Olympic qualifying standard in the 200 meters last year, the success of other intersex athletes has raised further questions about World Athletics policy.
Namibian teenager Christine Mboma beat the World Under-20 400 Championship three times in one week last season before being named a DSD athlete by World Athletes. Mboma came down in the 200m and won the silver medal at the Tokyo Olympics. Francine Niyonsaba of Burundi, Semenya’s finalist in the 2016 Olympic and 2017 World finals, has also been named a DSD athlete by World Athletics. Niyonsaba has progressed in distance, placing fifth in the Olympic 10,000m and recording six Diamond League victories in events ranging from 3,000 to 5,000 meters over the past two seasons. Like Mboma, Niyonsaba will miss this week’s Worlds through injury.
World Athletics president Sebastian Coe insists the organization is trying to level the playing field, not drive athletes like Semenya and Niyonsaba out of the sport, saying he didn’t want “those athletes are leaving so soon.”
On Wednesday, ignored by the crowd, forgotten by the sport, Semenya smiled and said “thank you” as she walked past reporters in an uncertain future.
“I really don’t know,” Hassan said. “I’m not in his place, I can’t…
“Yes, of course, I feel for her. It’s sad. I do not know what to say. I feel for her. I hope she gets the best for her.
“She is incredible.”