“A mother. An activist. An icon. This is Caster Semenya.”
The promotional blurb for Semenya’s forthcoming autobiography states three roles she inhabits, while its title — ‘The Race to Be Myself’ — reflects the challenges she continues to face over her identity in sport.
Released next Tuesday, Oct. 31, the book represents an opportunity for the 32-year-old to tell her story in her own words, from the World Championship gold medal that catapulted her to global renown in 2009, through the career highs of Olympic gold at London 2012 and Rio 2016, to the many legal battles of recent times.
Three months ago, she won an appeal to the European Court of Human Rights that encouraged her supporters and those of other athletes who are affected by World Athletes’ restrictive eligibility rules on testosterone limits.
In a tight 4-3 decision, the ECHR judges determined that Semenya’s complaints of discrimination as a result of the regulations were “substantiated and credible”. She reacted by saying: “Justice has spoken but this is only the beginning.”
The beginning of the next leg in this long and noisy race, you might say.
“Over the years, I’ve let people do a lot of talking, but they’re not talking about the real issue here,” Semenya says in an interview published this week by The Cut, the women’s interest site from Vox Media’s New York magazine.
In her view, it’s about how she can exist as a runner in a world in which the United Nations states that discrimination of people with intersex traits, characteristics or status should be prohibited — including in sports — but in which the global governing body of athletics acts otherwise.
She lays out her position in her memoir, from which an edited extract has been published in the New York Times.
“Even though I understand that those in the medical community call me an intersex person because of the way my internal organs are structured, I do not call myself intersex,” writes Semenya.
“That identity doesn’t fit me; it doesn’t fit my soul.”
And why would it? How could she be expected to embrace a word that has been used by others to singularly define her and discriminate against her for all her adult life?
Also in the extract, Semenya describes how that began, with the physically invasive situation that the IAAF (now World Athletics) officials sent her into as a teenager — how she expected a drugs test before her 800m world-title winning run in Berlin but was subjected to a sex test instead.
The results of that gynaecological exam were leaked to the media; Semenya was informed of her own differences in sex development (DSD) at the same time as everybody else.
“I learned that I had XY chromosomes, rather than the typically female XX pairing, and high levels of testosterone, produced by undescended testicles I didn’t know I had,” she writes.
Although the facts of what happened are widely known, readers can empathize much more with Semenya through her personal recollections.
She outlines a medical warning given by her doctor over the estrogen (“essentially birth control”) that the IAAF wanted her to take, to counter her high testosterone levels. She admits she ignored talk of potential side-effects, feeling she needed to go through with the hormone treatment or risk being unable to race and provide financially for her family.
The alternative was surgery, which she was determined to avoid. The doctor recommended a limit of four years on the estrogen. “You get one Olympics,” Semenya was told. “Anything beyond that, and you could do irreparable harm to your body.”
Yet she felt the side-effects even before London 2012, where she finished as runner-up in the 800m. Her silver medal was later upgraded to gold following the disqualification of Russia’s Mariya Savinova.
The success of Dutee Chand’s 2015 case at the Court of Arbitration of Sport forced the IAAF to suspend its policy and was a victory for Semenya too — “that day, I threw my pills in the trash can,” she writes — and in the window of opportunity that opened up, the South African won Olympic, World and Commonwealth gold medals before the IAAF shut the door on her once again in 2018.
“To me, its restrictions aren’t about leveling the playing field; they are about getting certain types of women off the field completely,” she writes. Barred from the 800m, she made an elite competition comeback in the 1500m at last year’s World Championships in Eugene but failed to progress past the semifinal stage.
On Intersex Awareness Day, Oct. 26, Semenya’s rejection of the word is a reminder of the societal stigma it carries, and how it continues to be weaponized against her and other athletes.
Her reality sums up so much of what people should be more aware of on this topic — that bodily variations are natural, that the language used to describe them is contentious, and that the voices of those with relevant lived experience are rarely heard.
Did you know that 2% of people in the world, including your own community, are intersex? Take this #IntersexAwarenessDay as a chance to be an ally, educator and advocate. More tips at https://t.co/cEO00BahWJ #IAD2023 pic.twitter.com/WMrzCnsvtj— Athlete Ally (@AthleteAlly) October 26, 2023
“From day one, I’ve understood I’m a different woman,” says Semenya, in her profile in The Cut. Her wife Violet Raseboya is also a contributor to the article, and remarks on how their individual identities were scrutinized by outsiders on their wedding day…
News platforms… suggested that because Raseboya wore a full-length white lace dress and Semenya dressed in an embroidered velvet suit, they were conforming to stereotypical gender roles. Still, neither seems rattled by that issue. In LGBTQ+ communities, terms exist to describe their relationship. “We’re talking about the butch and the femme here,” Raseboya says. “So I don’t see a problem. We know where we stand.”
Based on the New York Times extract alone, ‘The Race to Be Myself’ promises to be essential reading.
We can also predict, however, that it will be characterized in some quarters as an activist’s manifesto, or an icon’s hagiography.
Semenya’s intention is to open more minds, and foster a world in which the two daughters she is raising with Raseboya enjoy a greater sense of freedom. She adds in The Cut: “I am not going to force my kids to be who they’re not.
“I’m going to accept anything that comes — who they are, what they want to do with their life — as long as they are happy.”
The dividing lines enforced in sports may continue to constrain Semenya but a mother’s love, at least, knows no bounds.