The Top Sports Science Stories of 2012: Caster Semenya's Race

How should officials and the media handle questions about sex in sports?

Caster Semenya in London.     Photo: Tab59/Flickr

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Before South African runner Caster Semenya ran the 800m women’s final in the 2012 London Olympics, David Epstein of Sports Illustrated said that she would face judgment whether she won or lost. “If Semenya wins the gold, she is likely to be accused of having an unfair advantage,” wrote Epstein. “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.”

He was right. Semenya took silver, and explained that she didn’t win because of a tactical error—going too late into her kick. Questions spread online as to whether she threw the race. No definite answers were to be had. 

Semenya burst onto the scene as a running phenom in 2009. Her strong finishes combined with a strong jawline, defined torso, and deep voice led many to question her sex, sometimes cruelly. Those questions played out publicly as she was subjected to a variety of private tests. She was from a small town in South Africa, but her condition gained worldwide attention, and news organizations followed her story closely. On September 11, 2009, a report in Australia’s Daily Telegraph said that she had no womb or ovaries and did have internal testis, but those results were not confirmed by the organization that ordered the tests or Semenya. The results, if true, would mean that Semenya is intersex—a category for people whose physical development and sexual organs differ from the accepted understanding of male or female. There is no ultimate determination, in sport or in life.

The handling of Semenya’s case by officials and the media was unfortunate, and, at times, probably inexcusable. She was still a teenager and many of those people in charge of her may have not had her best interests in mind. Private details went public as officials were trying to figure out how to handle the situation and she was dealing with the news. Ariel Levy of the New Yorker detailed all of this beautifully in a November 2009 profile of Semenya. Anyone who wants to comment or express a public opinion about Semenya’s sex and race results would be wise to read that story first.

As for Semenya, she moved on from questions about her finish by saying she would concentrate on Rio. "I see a pretty good future for me,” she said. “The most important thing is to train, I just have to focus on my career and forget about the past."

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