Olympic gold medalist Caster Semenya has opened up about the physical and emotional challenges she endured when she was compelled to take hormone-suppressing medication to compete in women’s events. The South African runner, who clinched Olympic gold in the 800 meters at both the 2012 and 2016 Games, shared her ordeal on BBC Radio 4 Woman’s Hour.
Caster Semenya, legally classified as female at birth but with a medical condition that results in naturally elevated testosterone levels, had to navigate a turbulent journey following the introduction of strict regulations by World Athletics in 2018. These rules mandated that athletes with differences of sexual development (DSD), including Semenya, had to undergo hormone suppression therapy to compete in races between 400 meters and a mile. For Semenya, this entailed taking contraceptive pills to lower her testosterone levels.
During her candid interview with presenter Emma Barnett, Semenya recounted how the hormone therapy had adverse effects on her. She spoke of experiencing panic attacks, severe stress, and persistent nausea, which made her feel unwell throughout the duration of her treatment. She emphatically asserted that she poses no threat to other female athletes.
Furthermore, Semenya expressed her concerns about her own children pursuing athletics, as she did, due to the challenging experiences she endured. Instead, she intends to encourage them to explore different sports.
Semenya’s career has been marred by privacy breaches, including the leaking of her confidential medical records when she was required to prove her biological female status. The tests revealed that she was born without ovaries or a womb and possessed internal testes. Her testosterone levels were three times higher than what was considered “normal” for a woman at the time.
In her recently released memoir, “The Race to be Myself,” Semenya reflects on the stringent requirements imposed on her to compete, which included gender verification testing. She underwent one of these tests at the age of 18, just before achieving a gold medal at the World Championships in Berlin, Germany. She initially thought it was a doping test, and when informed that it was a gender test, she cooperated without hesitation, stating, “I know I am a woman.” The test results were later leaked without her consent and became public knowledge.
Semenya shared her thoughts on this violation, saying, “It’s a violation but it’s something I cannot control. At the end of the day, it’s out there and it’s done me a favor because I had to learn through it, there are people that had to learn through it. Now there are people who know that there are women out there with differences.” She further emphasized that women with differences are not threats.
Following the revelation of her elevated testosterone levels, Semenya reached an agreement with World Athletics (formerly the IAAF) to undergo hormone therapy to reduce her testosterone levels. She described her experience with the therapy as “hellish,” causing her stress, panic attacks, and constant nausea. It left her questioning her identity and struggling with her emotional well-being.
Despite the long-standing debate surrounding Semenya’s eligibility to compete among women, she maintains that her higher testosterone levels did not provide her with an unfair advantage over her peers. This perspective contrasts with World Athletics’ position, as expressed in a statement read by Barnett, that higher testosterone levels do confer an unfair advantage in the female category.
Semenya declined to comment on the debate surrounding transgender women in women’s sports, stating that she is not transgender and therefore cannot provide insights on the subject. The statement from World Athletics suggested that their guidelines were “necessary, reasonable, and proportionate” to protect women’s sports.
In addition to her athletic journey, Semenya discussed her life since retiring from competitive running. She disclosed that she continues to run daily but has primarily transitioned into a coaching role, working with young children. She expressed hope that the challenges she faced during her career would not be repeated for future generations of athletes.
Semenya also shared her thoughts on her two children, whom she co-parents with her wife, fellow athlete Violet Raseboya. She emphasized her desire for them to explore alternative sports like tennis, golf, or swimming, steering them away from the contentious issues surrounding women in sports. In her words, “I need to take them away from this nonsense of women being treated like they are animals.”
Caster Semenya’s story serves as a poignant reminder of the complexities and challenges that some athletes face in the pursuit of their dreams and the impact of regulations on their lives, both on and off the track.