ON THE last night of track and field competition at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Caster Semenya of South Africa, then 25, won the gold medal with a dominant performance in the 800 meters (below, right). This was not a surprise. Semenya had been the world's best women's half-miler in the months leading to the Games, and for much of the previous eight years, since winning the gold medal at the '09 world championships as an 18-year-old. She had also been constantly at the center of controversy regarding issues of gender, science and performance (and, by extension, privacy and social activism).
Before the Games, I had written a feature on Semenya in which I attempted to explain the issue. Central to the story was the question of whether women whose bodies produce higher-than-usual amounts of testosterone should be required to artificially lower their levels either by medication or by surgery. My story was praised by some and criticized by others. I received threats on social media, and information about my family was posted on Twitter. It is a deeply polarizing topic.
In the postrace press conference, Semenya said, with regard to the ongoing controversy, "It's all about loving one another. It's not about discriminating [against] people. It's not about looking at people [and] how they look, how they speak, how they run. It is all about sports."
This was a jarring moment for me. I had tried to write responsibly about the subject, but Semenya had not spoken to me (she does few interviews), thus there was little in my story to humanize her. Now she was sitting perhaps 20 feet away, speaking eloquently and passionately about a very complex topic. In this moment, the murky and divisive science melted away, and a person remained behind.
Last week the IAAF restored a version of the rule that, from 2011 to '15, placed a ceiling on testosterone levels for female athletes. But in this restoration, there is further controversy. A 2017 study commissioned by the IAAF—which is also controversial—suggested that women with unusually high testosterone levels have a significant advantage in the pole vault and hammer throw, and a less significant advantage in the 400 meters, 400-meter hurdles and 800 meters. Yet, the new ruling applies only to running events from 400 meters to the mile.
"This regulation is about targeting and impeding a few exceptional women of colour from the global south, especially Caster Semenya," bioethicist Katrina Karkazis and sociomedical scientist Rebecca Jordan-Young wrote in an article published in The Guardian.
This conclusion has considerable merit. Semenya is nearly unbeatable in the 800 meters and very good in both the 400 meters and 1,500 meters. The ruling essentially takes her out of play in international competition while affecting few others. It's a flawed solution to a complex problem—that is, if it can be considered a problem at all. The ruling is likely to face legal challenges. Semenya, now halfway to her next Olympics, is certain to remain in the shadows of a controversy of others' making.