Caster Semenya, the record-scorching South African runner with a stride like a bionic woman, is killing it on the track. She’s run through record after record, barrier after barrier, stopping for nothing. Then she was disqualified from competing—at least, as a female athlete. In May, Semenya lost her appeal against the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) after the governing body banned her from competing in the women’s events. Her crime? Having naturally high testosterone levels.
Semenya’s fight over her hormone levels started in 2009 after she won the semi-final race in the 800-meter dash at the World Championships. After her victory—right before the final—the IAAF made her submit to “gender verification testing.” She competed in the final, smoking her competition, but after the race was over, she was suspended by the IAAF from competing for nearly a year.
In 2011 the IAAF established official rules restricting athletes with hyperandrogenism, like Semenya. The organization argues that high testosterone levels, even when they occur naturally, give athletes an unfair advantage—more powerful muscle-building capability and oxygen-carrying capacity. Since then Semenya has been locked in an ongoing battle of appeals, suspensions, and changing rules. But in May the IAAF finally issued a ruling that could end her meteoric career. After the Court of Arbitration for Sport reviewed her appeals, it was decided: Semenya was banned from competing in women’s events unless she lowered her natural testosterone levels.
To keep competing as a woman—i.e. as her natural, biological self—she’d have to undergo hormone treatment, sort of like reverse doping. It’s a stunning verdict: The IAAF is arguing that for the sake of fairness, the best competitor on the field needs to be drugged. To be altered. To be slowed down. Usain Bolt would never hear such a suggestion. “It destroys you mentally and physically,” Semenya said in a recent press conference. “Then you feel like you’re not welcome.”
Women’s bodies are constantly policed—we’re told what we can and cannot do; what we can and cannot wear; and now, apparently, what hormones and in what quantities we can and cannot produce. As if that’s at all voluntary. Someone call Margaret Atwood; the Handmaid’s Tale sequel could write itself. Semenya’s case calls into question how we define gender—and what it means to be a woman.