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Caster Semenya Isn’t Just Fighting for Herself

16 minute read

On June 30, 2019, South African runner Caster Semenya—already a three-time world champ and two-time Olympic gold medalist in the 800-m—lined up at the starting line at Stanford University, to roars from the American crowd. She would win the prestigious Prefontaine Classic, with a time of 1 min. 55.70 sec., the fastest 800-m time ever run on American soil. It was her 31rd straight victory in the 800-m. Fans crowded around a fence after it was over to voice their appreciation for the superstar. As she writes in her memoir, The Race to Be Myself, Semenya was convinced that, that fall in Doha, she would break the 800-m world record while winning a fourth straight world-championship title.

Semenya never got the chance. She still hasn’t run a 800-m race, in fact, since that beautiful day in Palo Alto. A month later, a Swiss court upheld 2018 regulations from the IAAF, the track-and-field world governing body now named World Athletics, barring Semenya and other athletes with “differences of sex development” (DSD) from running in certain races, including the 800-m, unless they lowered their testosterone levels to a certain threshold via medical intervention. Semenya refused, and she’s continued to fight the regulations. In July she won a ruling in a European human rights court that leaves a door slightly ajar for a return. But she was not able to defend her 800-m gold medal at the Tokyo Olympics, and odds are, Semenya, 32, has run her last Olympic race.

By the time Semenya raced in Palo Alto, she had been facing questions about her gender for a decade. They first swirled in 2009, when at 18 she won the 800-m world-championship win in Berlin. Since then, Semenya has been at the center of a raging debate about fairness in women’s sports, appropriate definitions of gender, and the right to run, free of whispers and judgment. Now she’s ready to share her side. Semenya talked to TIME in New York City about her childhood, the indignities of gender testing, why she should still be running, and her future in sports. 

Why write this memoir now? 

You want to tell a story when you're in a good state of mind. When you’re at peace. As well as when you have enough time. It’s about time I support those who need me. It’s a reminder to those out there who feel rejected that they belong. The most important thing that you can do for yourself is just to accept yourself for who you are. Appreciate yourself, embrace yourself. Just make yourself happy.

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You write about your childhood growing up in Ga-Masehlong, a village in South Africa. You discuss “the law of the bush.” What’s the “law of the bush”?

What happens in the bush stays in the bush. It’s like what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas. We play [soccer], we hunt. We do crazy things, like fight. So if let's say, for instance, I had a fight with you in the bush. No one should know about it. It has to be about us. It's more like a sisterhood or brotherhood. It's a very simple law.

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Another thing I learned from the book is that, when you were 7 years old, you spent seven months in a hospital waiting for a doctor to conduct an operation on your injured knee. Seven months! How did that affect you?  

Being on my own helped me understand myself better. It pained me when my mom and sister came to visit me, and then they left. That was the beginning of understanding your zone and understanding being on your own and understanding to survive without depending on anyone. Just figuring out how to live life.

You were a talented soccer player growing up. You write, however, that running turns your mind “inward,” and team sports like soccer turn your mind “outward,” and you prefer an “inward” mindset. What do you mean by this?

Well, in team sports, it's never about me alone. It's about the team. But while I'm [running] alone, I don't have to blame anyone. No one has to blame me. I blame myself if I lose. I correct it, alone. In the team, we have to go sit as a team to fix the problem, which may not be fixed. You may keep on losing, losing, losing. When I'm running, I feel free because I have no worries. My loss is my loss. My win is my win.  

The first time you met your future wife, Violet Raseboya, you were at a regional cross-country meet, and she confused you for a boy in the locker room. From the outside, that could seem offensive. But you write about it as almost a point of pride. Why?

??If you know yourself, how you are, how you look, it is what it is. I always knew that I’m a different girl. So when someone will say, ‘Hey, you’re a boy,’” no, I will correct you. Because I know my identity. This is about self-identity. It’s about self-respect. It was always my responsibility to guide, to educate people, to say, “No, no, no. I am not a boy.” Yes, I may like shorts. I may like vests. I may be playing [soccer] with the guys. But I'm a woman. I love being me. God created me for purpose. And I am not going to question God because of mankind. 

As long as you don’t disrespect me, me and you will be in a good space. I was just like, to her, “If I was a guy, why would I be in this room?” She was a little bit embarrassed. I didn’t take it personally. We had a connection. We became friends. And from there, we start understanding one another. We become a unit. 

For the first time, you talk in detail about the two gender-verification tests you had to undergo before your breakout performance at the 2009 World Championships: one in South Africa, before you left for worlds, and one in Berlin, the site of worlds, on what was supposed to be an off-day between the semifinals and final. What was the toughest part of that experience?

When you have nothing to hide, you won’t say it’s tough. I wanted to show these people, “Look, what you’re doing is wrong.” You’re not going to find anything. Only 'you have a high testosterone level. You are a woman who has no uterus, a woman with no fallopian tube, you are a woman with internal testicles.'” Publicizing this, they’ve done me a favor. You’re educating people about differences in a human being. That was not humiliating. What was humiliating was how they treated me.

What about the treatment was humiliating?

The language they used to describe me was a humiliation. Telling me I’m not a woman, I’m a man. She might not be woman enough. That’s disrespect. You can’t talk about someone like that.

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After results from the testing were leaked, you write that “it was as if the entirety of humanity had discovered some kind of alien that looked like them but wasn’t them had been living amongst them.” What were you thinking and feeling at that moment? 

You’re going to be very angry. You want to act. You want revenge. But at the end of the day, throughout those days, you realize that I’m not going to be like those people. Even if I get angry, it's not going to help me with anything. It helped me to be a better person. You start learning how to treat people with respect, start learning how to build relationships, how to fight for what's right, you start how to speak the truth. 

You write about how your legal team made an agreement with the IAAF: the organization would allow you to compete if you took contraceptive pills to lower testosterone levels. In the book, you call this medical intervention “poison.” What was the most difficult moment while taking the medication?

You’re taking these things, and for what? They make you sick. They take the soul out of you. You're no longer living based on what you're supposed to be. There were times where you would be like, “Why am I even doing this?” Because there are no results out of it. It was dark. That's why I wrote in the book, if you're going to take that route, you must know you are ending your life. You are just booking your casket.

But you did manage to win the silver medal in the 800-m at the 2012 London Olympics; it was later upgraded to gold after Mariya Savinova-Farnosova of Russia had her win stripped due to doping. 

I did whatever I had to do to survive. That’s why it pisses them off. Because they couldn’t get me out. Yes, they took my happiness. They robbed me of my teenage life. But they did not rob my destiny. 

Sprinter Dutee Chand, of India, successfully challenged the IAAF’s testosterone regulations in court, freeing you in 2015 to run without having to take drugs. How did that freedom feel?  

It was a relief. I'm no longer going to be taking this medication. And I'll never take it again. It feels good to just be yourself, living life stress-free. My goal was to just get to my old self, to fix my head. Now I don't have to focus on how to balance hormones and all those things. What I need to focus on is to make sure that I train hard as much as I can, and make sure that I deliver as much as I can. What I'm going do now is just to make sure that everything I do is perfect. 

Anything I see in front of me, I crush. Because you have to understand that I've wasted five years. Now I’m going to regain my five years.  

You won 800-m gold at the 2016 Rio Olympics. But, as you write, “the chatter about the 800-m final was brutal.” The other members of the all-Black, all-African podium—silver medalist Francine Niyonsaba of Burundi and bronze medalist Margaret Nyairera Wambui of Kenya also had DSD and produced high testosterone. Hours before the race, IAAF president Sebastian Coe talked about wanting to reinstate testosterone regulations. The fifth-place finisher, Poland’s Joanna Jozwik, said she felt "like a silver medalist” and said she was glad to be the “second white” to cross the line. Sixth-place finisher Lynsey Sharp of Great Britain, who’s also white, said she was relying on "people at the top" to resolve the “issue.” What disappointed you about all this talk and reaction?

It disappoints because when you face me, everything is good. You laugh with me, we’re communicating. But then behind my back, you're going to be talking nonsense? It became a racial situation. Followed by discrimination, then disrespect. Where is the sportsmanship? It shows that the leadership in world athletics have done well to separate women from women. To make sure that we, as women, hate one another. They’re not building women’s sports. They’re teaching people how to discriminate, how to be racist. But the principle of sports is to say no to racism, so say no to discrimination. And it confuses me, when you are a leader, you come in, you want to build a sport, but you're destroying it. 

In 2018, the IAAF introduced new regulations, requiring athletes with DSDs competing in the 400-m, 800-m, 1,500-m races to lower testosterone, via contraceptive use or other medical intervention, to below 5 nmol/liter for a continuous period of at least six months in order to compete. You fought this ruling in court, and in documents the IAAF referred to you as “biologically male.” Why did that upset you?

What do they know about biology? You don’t disrespect someone to that extent. When they say I am born a man, what do they mean about that? Are you saying that because I don’t have a uterus? Because I don’t have a fallopian tube? Because of my internal testicles? You say I’m a man. But I don’t have a dick. 

When you’re disrespectful to that extent, I can be disrespectful. For example, and I’ll say the name, Sebastian [Coe], if he has small balls, does it make him a lesser man? No. If his sex drive is low, does it make him less of a man? You don’t need to prove a point in court by disrespecting people. I'm not a man. I'll never be a man. When it comes to situations like this, these are sensitive issues. You're not going to tell a woman that she is born a man. Having those internal testicles doesn’t make me a man.

Here in America, legislators have passed laws in recent years banning transgender athletes—particularly transgender girls—from participating on sports teams consistent with their gender identity. Just to be clear: you are not transgender. But I’m curious if you’ve been following this issue, which has become a hot-button political topic in the U.S., and if you have any thoughts about it.

I think it would be unfair for me to answer that. First of all, I don't have a problem with transgender family. I love them. I'm about diversity and inclusivity. When it comes to laws, I'm not in the state to comment because I've got no idea or no knowledge about laws. Look, I believe anyone has got the right to sports. It will be unfair speaking on behalf of the trans family, because I don't know how it feels to be trans. And they don’t know how it feels to be a different woman [like] I am. For me, I don’t care where you’re coming from, what you look like, what process you have done to be the person you are. At the end of the day, I respect each and every individual in the universe.

Do you respect their rights to be involved in sports? 

I respect their rights to be involved in sports. At the end of the day, they are all human. I expect them to be respected as human. But in terms of making laws, I know nothing about governance. But personally, I love them. They're human like me. They’re different like me. I don't really have a problem with that.

After several legal setbacks, you took your fight to run without medical intervention to the European Court of Human Rights, which in July found that a Swiss court had failed to uphold human-rights norms despite “credible claims of discrimination.” While this ruling did not immediately change World Athletics regulations keeping you off the track, it does leave open the possibility of a different outcome down the road. Do you hope that the regulations could be overturned and you could be running in the Olympics, if not in Paris, then in Los Angeles in 2028?

I haven’t decided either way whether I’d run or not. For me, the hope is that such rulings are never made [again]. Human rights need to be considered. People need to be treated with dignity and respect. I'm fulfilled if those young girls can go run, enjoy their youth, enjoy their teenage life, enjoy sport. As much you say sport is for all, at the moment it is not. 

You write about how the World Athletics actions feel personal. You ran, for example, without testosterone limits in the 5,000-m at the World Championships last year in Eugene, Ore., finishing 13th in your heat. But just this past March, IAAF introduced new legislation requiring stricter testosterone minimums in DSD athletes, for all distances.

They talk about leveling the sport. There’s no f-cking way. Sports are never fair. If sports is fair, level men's sports. And come back and tell me.

Another important point you make is about how hard you’ve trained as an athlete. And you argue that if testosterone was that big a difference maker, you'd be running men’s times. 

If I was a biological man, I’d be running 1:41. [In the 800-m, Kenya’s David Rushida holds the world record, at 1:40:91. Semenya’s personal best time is 1:54:25.] I don’t even have the power to stick to a man’s pace. If it was like that, I’ll agree. I’d say, "I get it, guys. I’ll run with men.” 

At the end of the day, it's fine. I played my role. I'm the best at what I do. I am the greatest of our generation. There's nothing [Sebastian Coe] can do about it. What I want him to do is a good thing. He must use his brains. Let the business run itself. We are entertainers. People want to see people with genetics, people who can do wonders. They don't care about you telling us, “she's not woman enough.”

Along these lines, I guess no one has ever said Usain Bolt is “too much man.”

That’s what I’m saying. LeBron is not too much man. But Serena, when she goes good, she’s not good enough. She’s not woman enough. I always have a problem with this issue. When [Black] women have to go through this.

Let’s talk about your future. You’ve opened up a track club in Pretoria with your wife. You have degrees in sports management and sports science. What do you want to accomplish in sports, following your running career?  

Maybe I'll have my own Caster Semenya Sports Institute. It also depends on Violet’s plans and dreams. They need to align. My life is based on my family. But if we are able to do that, why not? 

You have two daughters, a 2-year-old and a 4-year-old. Do you want them to run?

No. I don't want my kids to go through what I went through. Because as a woman, I know what they're going to go through. I would love them to explore different sports. Maybe they will find peace. Maybe they will find love. At the moment, they do swimming, which makes me so happy. I see future Olympic champions there. 

That’s great. Is there anything we didn’t cover or I should have asked? 

I’ll just say one more thing. It’s very, very important. Men should stop regulating women in sports. If we say we, as women, are very important, you also must give us opportunities to run organizations. 

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Write to Sean Gregory at sean.gregory@time.com