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Caster Semenya abandons track after hormone rules leave her with few options

The controversial track athlete announced that she’d signed with a small South African soccer team for the 2020 season after the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) releases new rules regarding female athletes with high testosterone levels.

After a long court battle with the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF),Caster Semenya has signed with Janine Van Wyk Football Club (JVW) for the coming season.

Semenya has three times the testosterone that is considered normal for female athletes. The IAAF in recent years has alternated between allowing her to compete in the female category and forcing her to take drugs to regulate her naturally high testosterone levels. In September she left the sport of track and signed with the JVW soccer team for their 2020 season.

The move represents a step down in prestige for the two time Olympic Gold-medalist and three time World Championship Gold-medalist. For years, Semenya was competing in the diamond league, the highest level of competition in track apart from the world championships and the Olympics. But as Semenya moves to soccer, she will be playing in the South African Women’s Sasol league which is far down the pecking order of soccer leagues.

Semenya grew up playing soccer everyday after school, although as she progressed through high school, her focus became less on soccer and more on running. Semenya first showed her potential in running at the age of 18 when she broke the South African record for the 800m by over two seconds. The next year, she won the 2009 World Championship 800m by over two seconds. In the coming eight years, Semenya went on the win the 800m at the 2012 and 2016 Olympic games and the 2011 and 2017 World Championships.

After her first world championship win, the media questioned her sex and the IAAF performed a “sex verification test”. The results were never officially released but it has been widely reported that Semenya has an intersex characteristic. Moreover, she has three times the testosterone amount that is considered “normal” for female athletes (Male athletes have around ten times the amount). After that initial test, Semenya was forced to lower her testosterone in order to be eligible to compete as a female. Subsequently, Semenya lost her dominance of the event until the hormonal imposition was overturned by a global sport legal decision. Semenya returned to her winning ways once she was able to compete naturally until 2019 when she was once again not allowed to compete as a female without lowering her testosterone. Shortly after this second frustration of her running career, she decided to sign with JVW for the 2020 season. 

In some ways returning to the sport she played growing up and to a community that will accept her natural state, would seem a logical move. However, this cannot have been an easy decision for Semenya. In general, runners will peak between the ages of 25 and 30. Semenya, currently 28 is at the peak of her career and will have another one or two seasons at this level. But if she leaves track for soccer and comes back in a few seasons, not only will she be out of her prime, but she’ll have lost the benefit of consistent training for track since she was in high school. Switching so late in life to a highly technical sport that she hasn’t competed in for roughly 15 years is likely to prove a challenge. 

Being a soccer player is very different from being a runner: it requires perfect concentration for 90 minutes plus added time. Compare that to just below two minutes of focus running 800m on the track. Former track star, Usain Bolt, who is the current 100m and 200m world record holder, moved to soccer in 2018 and has settled in the Australian league which is at a similar level to the league that Semenya will be playing in. Footage of Bolt playing soccer shows a talented athlete that is lacking the requisite both hand-eye-foot coordination and the ability to cope with the pressure placed upon him by other players.

Under the circumstances imposed on Semenya, it’s no surprise that her results are not ideal. Running while on hormone treatments is obviously not ideal for her either. As a soccer player, at least she avoids the indignity having the IAAF punishing her for the natural state of her body. It takes a body that is not “normal” to truly stand above the rest in any sport, but the IAAF remains uncertain about what constitutes a just and equitable approach towards athletes like Semenya.

In an interview about her track career, Semenya struck a self-assured and defiant stance: “I am not a fake. I am natural. I am just being Caster. I don’t want to be someone I don’t want to be. I don’t want to be someone people want me to be. I just want to be me. I was born like this. I don’t want any changes.”

Tab59 / Flickr

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