Caster Semenya, the "poster girl for hyperandrogenism," is a Favorite to win the 800m at the Rio Olympics


Remember Caster Semenya, the South African sprinter? She became internationally known in 2009 when, at 18-years old, she dominated the World Championships and fellow runners complained she was a man. The Sydney Daily Telegraph in Australia ran a headline blaring she was a hermaphrodite, and it was picked up around the world. (The paper’s link to the story no longer works.)

Semenya will be competing in the Rio Olympics in the 800m (and maybe the 400m), and she’s the heavy favorite to win. And it likely won’t be without controversy. Via the Guardian:

"Wesley Botton, who has followed Semenya more closely than any reporter since her surprising emergence as a world champion in 2009, laments the fact “she has become the poster girl for hyperandrogenism.” Jean Verster, the athlete’s coach, stresses that “Caster is a fantastic human being, a down-to-earth person and a great athlete who is like a mother to some of the girl athletes in our group.” Meanwhile Ross Tucker, the eminent South African sports scientist, regrets the personalisation of hyperandrogenism, but he is “dreading the Olympics because Semenya will win and the fallout will be deeply unpleasant.”"

Hyperandrogenism, as it relates to Olympic athletes, involves naturally elevated testosterone levels among female athletes. In 2011, the IAAF set an upper limit on naturally occurring testosterone levels in female athletes, and those that wished to participate, like Semenya, who were above that level had to take hormones to lower the testosterone levels. Last year, a different athlete, sprinter Dutee Chand of India, successfully challenged that provision, and so that is why there is no upper limit this year. (The ban on that ruling is in effect until July 2017, while the issue is further studied).

This year, Semenya, no longer required to take hormones to reduce her testosterone levels, ran the fastest 800m since 2008, but the article goes on to say she may also run the 400m, which would pit her against Allyson Felix, the best US sprinter. Semenya already won the silver medal in the 2012 Games, while she was taking hormones to reduce her testosterone levels.

The world is a much different place now than it was in 2009 when Semenya burst on the scene, but the guess here is that if Semenya captures two gold medals, she might be one of the most talked-about non-American athletes in Rio.