Explosive Semenya interview reveals her humiliation over constant scrutiny

Explosive Semenya interview reveals her humiliation over constant scrutiny
Caster Semenya after the women’s 2000m race at an International athletics meeting in Montreuil, near Paris, on 11 June 2019. Photo: EPA-EFE / Julien de Rosa)

Olympic gold medallist Caster Semenya has spoken candidly about her battle against athletics authorities.

Extracts of an interview airing on HBO Real Sports with former Olympic 800m champion Caster Semenya, which was due to air in the early hours of Wednesday morning, is set to be the star runner’s most revealing interview yet.

According to a report published on The Telegraph’s website, Semenya speaks brutally and candidly about the humiliations she has endured in her fight to be accepted as a female athlete.

She tells of offering to show her genitals to athletics officials to prove she isn’t male, and of the agony she went through after being forced to take testosterone-lowering medication.

“They thought I had a dick, probably,” Semenya says in the interview. “I told them, ‘It’s fine. I’m a female, I don’t care. If you want to see I’m a woman, I will show you my vagina. Alright?’ ”

caster semenya 800m

Caster Semenya celebrates after winning the women’s 800m at the IAAF Diamond League athletics meeting in Doha, Qatar, on 3 May 2019. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Noushad Thekkayil)

Semenya was also forced to take drugs to suppress her natural levels of testosterone, which she reveals caused her physical and mental trauma.

“It made me sick, made me gain weight, panic attacks, I don’t know if I was going to have a heart attack,” she says. “It’s like stabbing yourself with a knife every day. But I had no choice.

“I’m 18, I want to run, I want to make it to [the] Olympics, that’s the only option for me. But I had to make it work.”

Semenya is often mistaken by the layperson as a trans athlete, but she is not. She has a difference in sex development (DSD), the blanket term for congenital conditions in which people have atypical sex chromosomes.

In past court documents, Semenya confirmed that her DSD is of the 46 XY variety, meaning that she has female features and male chromosomes.

Humans born without DSD have two X chromosomes as females and XY chromosomes as males.

In other words, she has naturally high levels of testosterone, which exceed limits decided by the International Amateur Athletics Federation (IAAF) in 2018.

To be permitted to compete in her favourite distances, she was compelled to take testosterone-suppressing drugs to fall within the regulated limits of below five nanomoles per litre of blood (5nmol/L), which is about twice as much as females with XX chromosomes. 

Semenya, as she explains, eventually refused to take drugs to suppress naturally occurring levels of testosterone and it cost her a place at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.

caster semenya interview

Caster Semenya has spoken brutally and candidly in an HBO Real Sports interview aired in the early hours of Wednesday morning about the humiliations she has endured in her fight to be accepted as a female athlete. (Photo: Anton Geyser / Gallo Images)

On the HBO show, Jonathan Taylor, a World Athletics lawyer, disputed that the medication was harmful: “You say, medically, it’s not healthy for me, then my question back to you is: ‘Why do the world’s leading experts say that that is what we would prescribe?’ ”

That prompted an angry response from Semenya: “Jonathan must cut his tongue and throw it away. If he wants to understand how that thing has tortured me, he must go and take those medications. He will understand.”

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Legal challenges 

Prior to the Tokyo Olympics (held in 2021), Semenya challenged the rule at the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS), but lost when three judges ruled against her in May 2019. 

She took the case further, unsuccessfully appealing at the Swiss Federal Tribunal, Switzerland’s highest court that oversees CAS.

Semenya and her legal team then took the case to the European Court of Human Rights. Her lawyers argued that the IAAF rule violated Semenya’s right to privacy and right to practise her profession and caused her to suffer “treatment contrary to her human dignity, her physical and mental integrity, and her social and gender identity”. 

It has essentially moved the case from one about biology and competing, to a case about gender, race and politics.

To add more complexity to an already complex situation, shortly after the Tokyo 2020 Olympics ended, the British Journal of Sports Medicine issued a correction to a 2017 study. It was significant because the IAAF case — and subsequent regulations to decrease testosterone levels — were based on that original study.

The correction stated that its findings were “exploratory” and “could have been misleading”. That outcome incensed the Semenya legal team because the retraction came after the Olympics were over.

Dignity and respect

After these legal setbacks, the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) submitted itself as a “third party intervener” in the middle-distance athlete’s legal case at the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). 

The ECHR allowed the SAHRC to make a submission, which it lodged on 11 October 2021. It runs to 2,145 pages and includes 19 South African case law judgments as well as four international case law verdicts.

caster semenya doha

Caster Semenya at the IAAF Diamond League athletics meeting in Doha, Qatar, on 3 May 2019. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Noushad Thekkayil)

In opening remarks to Judge Róbert Spanó, the SAHRC submission states: “The circumstances of this case are exceptional. In particular, this case raises complex questions around the rights of the applicant to dignity and respect; uniquely, the proper approach to intersectional discrimination, and the approach that should be taken to justifying any discrimination found on those bases.”

 The SAHRC submission focuses on eight key principles of South African case law, which the Constitutional Court has identified. It involves some complex legalese, but the first principle is perhaps the most telling.

It states that “no adaptation, negation, nor self-abnegation is necessary”. 

The IAAF rules, by compelling Semenya to take hormone drugs to lower her naturally occurring testosterone, are asking her to alter her natural state. 

That is an “infringement of their human dignity”, according to the principle. DM


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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Sydney Kaye says:

    I cannot comment on her particular case and the terrible situation she finds herself, but the claim that the right to “human dignity” protects a person from rules or laws in every situation is not sustainable. Zuma uses this to avoid trial or punishment because he is old/sick/humiliated and whatever. Being inter alia, arrested questioned, imprisoned, fired, fined or even sued could fall into the same bracket.

  • Karl Sittlinger says:

    It’s a pity this article doesn’t even make an effort to present the other side of the coin. There is still quite a bit research required on the effects of testosterone on women, but there is significant evidence that it has a noticeable impact on sports performance especially in the elite segment (even after the correction and based on newer studies . What about the dignity of all professional sports women without natural elevated testosterone…do they never deserve to win?

    For a more balanced view this article by Doriane Lambelet Coleman does a good job looking beyond the ethics of the individual, and how it impacts all women in sport:

    That being said, the way the whole thing was handled by the CAS was abysmal and Caster has every right to be angry. But that changes little about about the fact that she has an unfair advantage in some womens sports.

    • Steven Burnett says:

      Caster Semenya is a groundbreaking individual for human rights, but she’s just not a female athlete. She had two options to classify as a female within a very obscure physiological mine field. Instead she has been used as a pawn and gone the court route.

      Very little is said of this terrible medicine she was forced to take. Guess what, it’s just the “pill”.


      Semenya took the oral contraceptives for five years from 2010-15 and said they caused a myriad of unwanted side effects: weight gain, fevers, a constant feeling of nausea and abdominal pain, all of which she experienced while running at the 2011 world championships and 2012 Olympics. A South African track team doctor said the medication also affected Semenya’s mood and ability to train and she was “visibly depressed.” The doctor, Philda de Jager, said the medication caused Semenya’s metabolism to go “haywire” and she displayed symptoms of a menopausal woman.

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