South African athlete Caster Semenya has come out with her version of events just before and after the 2009 Berlin World Championships when there was a whisper campaign around her gender. Back then, 18-year-old Semenya won the gold with a world-leading time of 1:55.45 even as the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) confirmed on the eve of the 800m final that the athlete would be subjected to a gender verification process after the race.
After her breakthrough performance in Berlin, Semenya didn’t run for 11 months and was suspended for six of those after the test.
When she was allowed to return to competition, her timings dipped. The runner describes in detail the alleged side-effects of the medication she had to take to suppress her hormone levels to be eligible to compete again. Just before the world championships, Athletics South Africa had also sent a gynaecologist to examine Semenya.
Semenya gave a detailed description of the trauma she underwent when she unsuccessfully challenged IAAF eligibility rules, which put restrictions on testosterone levels for women athletes who wanted to participate in the female category, at the Court of Arbitration for Sport earlier this year.
Following her victory in Berlin, the IAAF did not give her a choice when it came to the ‘gender verification test’. “It was an order by the IAAF which I had to comply with,” CAS heard. The fact that the gender test was conducted was leaked to the media.
“Semenya went on to describe her deep shock and distress caused by the public description of her body and her private medical information by the IAAF and the international media. As an 18-year-old woman, she could not comprehend and was profoundly confused that her gender was being questioned for the first time in her life. Ms Semenya described how the ‘atrocious and humiliating’ treatment she was subjected to ‘continues to haunt me’,” the CAS verdict mentioned.
Ever since the 2009 World Championships, Semenya has endured “relentless public scrutiny” and her love for the sport of athletics has been “drained”, her representatives stated during the CAS hearing.
Semenya said that the only option the world athletics body gave her was to take hormone-suppressing medication to reduce her testosterone levels, which were naturally occurring. Semenya described the negative effects of the medication on her physical and mental well-being. The side-effects included excessive sweating, significant weight gain, regular fevers and constant internal abdominal pain. Over two years — 2013 and 2014 — Semenya experienced poor performance, which she attributed to the weight gain. Even when she won a silver at the London Olympics (later upgraded to gold after the disqualification of Russian Mariya Savinova because of doping), Semenya suffered from nausea because of the medication.
As part of the agreement with the IAAF, Semenya had to undergo two blood tests every month while she was taking oral contraceptives. Semenya also stated that the IAAF used her as a ‘lab rat’ or a ‘guinea pig’ by experimenting how the medication levels would affect her testosterone levels.