Sun | Dec 8, 2019

Oral Tracey | The IAAF’s Semenya dilemma

Published:Monday | February 25, 2019 | 12:08 AM
IAAF president Sebastian Coe

Opinions continue to be sharply divided on the saga involving South African middle-distance runner Caster Semenya. One view is that Semenya’s testosterone discrepancy and resultant advantage are all natural, thus, she should be allowed to compete as is. The dominant contending view is that the very same testosterone discrepancy renders her advantage unfair.

This entire debate ought not to be as complicated as it’s being made out to be if all the contending perspectives were being guided by rational thought instead of raw emotions and, in some cases, raved activism. The simplicity in this conflict lies in the fact that the sport of athletics is divided into two categories by gender – male and female.

Caster Semenya’s physical abnormalities cast genuine doubts on the specificity of her gender. She, therefore, does not clearly qualify under either category, so strictly speaking, she ought not to be allowed to compete until she satisfies the basic criterion of being either male or female, or until a category is established to facilitate her and others with similar abnormalities.

A gender test was, in fact, conducted on the South African in 2009. The results, as reportedly handed over to the IAAF at the time, revealed that Semenya has no womb or ovaries, but had internal testes. The world governing body understandably did not publicly confirm the details of those results, but it stands to logical reason that testosterone levels of three times the amount of normal women would corroborate the presence of the internal testes, which, instructively, are the glands directly responsible for the secretion of the male hormone testosterone.

The insistence of the IAAF that Semenya at least medicates in order to reduce her testosterone levels to a reasonable level is also consistent with the reports that all was far from normal with those 2009 test results, which summarised that Semenya should be best described as a hermaphrodite by virtue of her having elements of both the male and female sex organs.

Objectively, this is a simple and straightforward issue, but with the added elements of emotions and the politics of the day, simplicity has gone out the window. Semenya, the person, was born with abnormalities. Those abnormalities render her genderless and should logically disqualify Semenya the athlete, from taking part in competitive professional sport specifically categorised by gender.

The governing body is caught between a rock and hard place. The IAAF finds itself squarely in the quagmire of not wanting to appear to be discriminating against any individual or group on the basis of their God-given attributes and on the other hand, needing to protect the integrity of their sport.



Semenya’s dilemma, made simple, is akin to persons who are unfortunately born with glaring physical abnormalities that put them at a distinct disadvantage and invariably prohibit participation in competitive sport. It’s the opposite with Semenya, who derives an unfair advantage from her abnormalities and, in principle, should equally be prohibited by these abnormalities from participation in competitive sport.


The current firestorm is brutally unfortunate for the reigning Olympic 800m champion, but the wider principle is always bigger than the individual. Any athlete anywhere in any sport who cannot clearly be identified as either male or female will face the very same challenges as Caster Semenya, until and unless the IAAF adds a new category for Semenya and other athletes with the same abnormalities.


It is evident that Caster Semenya, the athlete, is suffering the consequences of her own naturally produced gender ambiguity, and that is the ‘crooks’ of her problem.