Caster Semenya: The female athlete subjected to a gender test in 2009 expected to take gold at Rio

Semenya set the fastest time at the World Athletics Championships in 2009 for the women's 800-metre with apparent ease. But very public questions about her gender then followed

Heather Saul
Wednesday 17 August 2016 11:57 BST
Who is Caster Semenya?

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Louise Thomas

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Caster Semenya will compete in the women’s 800-metre at the Rio 2016 Olympics on 17 August. She is being widely tipped to take gold for South Africa.

The 25-year-old athlete won silver in the 2012 Olympics and this year ran her fastest ever time for the 800m.

Semenya set the fastest time at the World Athletics Championships in 2009. But her road to victory has been marked by controversy over questions about her gender which ultimately overshadowed her success. As a result, her performance at the Olympics will be closely watched around the world.

Gender test

In 2009, Semenya won the women’s 800m with an astonishing and seemingly effortless four second lead on her rivals at the World Athletics Championships in Berlin, aged 18.

But this victory was followed by a “gender verification test” to establish whether a medical condition was giving her an unfair advantage.

News of the gender test was leaked by accident when a fax was sent to the wrong person.


The gender test sparked controversy in South Africa and prompted criticism of the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) for allowing her gender to be questioned so publically. British bookies even took bets on the results of her gender tests.

But in her home country, she was and still is a national hero.

South African President Jacob Zuma said at the time: “It is one thing to seek to ascertain whether or not an athlete has an unfair advantage over others, but it is another to publicly humiliate an honest professional and competent athlete.”

“We are here to tell the whole world how proud we are of our little girl,” Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, the ex-wife of Nelson Mandela, told the thousands of fans cheering her on as she arrived back in her native country. “They can write what they like – we are proud of her.”

Semenya herself was deeply affected by the gender tests and resulting chaos. ”If it wasn't for my family, I don't think I could have survived,“ she told the BBC in 2015. ”It was upsetting, you feel humiliated. You cannot control what people think. It is about yourself, controlling yourself - what is in you. But now I want to focus more on the future, I don't want to go back there. What is done is done.“

Despite returning to South Africa to a hero's welcome, she did not run again for 11 months.

Wider implications

Rules forcing female athletes to take testosterone-suppressing medication were suspended in July 2015 for two years, pending further investigation, after it was challenged by lawyers for the Indian sprinter Dutee Chand, who was suspended under “hyperandrogenism” rules. Chand’s lawyers claimed it was sexist to force female athletes to take testosterone suppressing medication when men’s testosterone levels are not recorded.


Semenya has shied away from media attention and rarely speaks to the press, but she has revealed one of the biggest motivations behind her return to form. “When I am in that lane and I hear 'Caster Semenya from South Africa', I always know I am doing it for my people," she said last year.

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