Opinion: The Caster Semenya verdict is 'wrong and demeaning'

Champion sprinter Caster Semenya has lost her appeal against regulations limiting testosterone levels in certain women's athletic events. DW's Zipporah Nyambura takes issue with the ruling.

Two-time Olympic 800-meter champion Caster Semenya lost a landmark case against athletics governing body IAAF on May 1, meaning that it will be allowed to restrict testosterone levels in female runners. The case grabbed international attention, not just because of its complexity but also because of its impact on other sportswomen in a similar situation. As an African woman and a journalist, I am embarrassed by the torture — physical and emotional — that the young South African athlete from the village of Fairlie in Limpopo province has had to endure. 

First controversial win

I vividly remember how we were all glued to our televisions in 2009 as Semenya easily won the 800-meter race in the World Championships in Berlin. We couldn't tear our eyes from the screen as the 18-year-old beat our own Kenyan runner, Janeth Jepkosgei, a former 800-meter world champion, into second place. 

All hell broke loose after that win. It was not just Semenya's victory that dominated the headlines globally but also her deep voice and her muscular attributes. The murmurs and cynical comments questioning her gender were clear. I heard statements like: "Is she really a woman down there?" and "It's OK, he deserved the win."

That victory marked the start of a period of intense speculation and ridicule for the young athlete. At her age, she was probably not ready for her sudden fame as a celebrated figure for aspiring female athletes and as an object of scrutiny by the media and the international athletics body.

Why it's different this time

In its ruling, the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) said the proposed measures to give medication to female athletes with "differences of sexual development" (DSD) to reduce testosterone levels would create a level playing field.

Some Kenyans who at the time decried Semenya's win over Jepkosgei are now rallying behind her. They no longer see her as an opponent but as an African hero discriminated against by the West.

Differing views of women

As a journalist and an African woman, I find the manner in which Semenya's body and sexuality have become a matter for public scrutiny to be saddening, wrong and demeaning.

Since the onset of colonization, the African woman has been bombarded by rhetoric telling her how a "real" or "normal" woman should look. It is said that the colonial masters considered the African woman to be not female enough. 

This view still exists in numerous beauty pageants, TV advertisements and elsewhere. Commercials regularly sell the ideal of a slim, long-haired, soft-spoken woman.

Tennis star Serena Williams has been criticized for not being feminine enough

After her victory in Berlin in 2009, Semenya said photographs were taken of private parts of her body in a medical center in Pretoria. She was bitterly upset.

But are females who look masculine less women? Will she become more woman with less testosterone if she still walks and talks the same way?

Future implications

Semenya is not the only black athlete who has been a subject of scrutiny about her gender identity. Former world No. 1 tennis player Serena Williams has often been bashed for being so "manly."

Kenyan boxer Fatuma Zarika, aka Iron Fist, who this year won the World Boxing Council's Super Bantam Weight title for the third time, was ridiculed after she beat Zambian Catherine Piri. Outraged Piri fans vented their anger on social media, shamelessly referring to Zarika as "he" and a "hermaphrodite."

Other athletes, such as the middle-distance former world junior champion Margaret Wambui from Kenya and Burundian Francine Niyonsaba, also an 800-meter specialist, have thrown their weight behind Semenya.

They are watching the unfolding events with bated breath. Semenya accuses the IAAF of specifically setting the rules to target her, claims that the athletics body has vehemently denied. Semenya insists that she wants to run the way she was born.

Caster Semenya beat Burundi's Francine Niyonsaba in the women's 800 meters in Norway in 2017

Divided opinions

The complexity of this saga reflects the struggle to define the normal parameters of femininity.

On social media Semenya continues to receive love and hatred in equal measure. Supporters rally with hashtags such as #HandsoffCaster and #IstandwithSemenya.

The World Medical Association (WMA) has called on physicians not to implement the IAAF rules on reducing testosterone levels, which it terms "unjustified medication" and "flagrant discrimination."

South Africa's minister of sport and recreation, Tokozile Xasa, described the ruling as a gross violation of human rights and called on the world to stand with South Africa as it fights against this. South Africans have not shied away from saying it's racism against their athlete.

Those athletes and others who support the new IAAF rules believe that they will ensure fair competition for female runners. In its verdict, CAS said that athletes with DSD have an unfair advantage over other female athletes.

Regardless of Semenya's next move, her outstanding performances on the track should not be downplayed. To me she remains a symbol of hope for many young people, male and female, in South Africa and the whole African continent.