Caster Semenya

The exceptional South African runner

Text by Susie Rushton
Portraits by Alasdair McLellan
Styling by Jonathan Kaye
Issue nº 21, Spring & Summer 2020

Caster Semenya won the gold medal in the 800 metres at the last two Olympics, in London and Rio, but for Tokyo 2020 she is banned from running that distance. Not because of a doping scandal, but because she refuses to take testosterone-reducing medication. Such a ban, and the level of public argument about her sex that she’s been subject to would surely destroy most athletes.

But for the talkative 29-year-old South African, it’s all merely one more hurdle to overcome in doing what she does so exceptionally. And that is winning – as she aims to prove at the Olympics this summer, whichever the race.

When Caster Semenya steps out of her Pretoria house every day for a run, she takes one of two memorised routes: a 30- or a 60-minute loop. There are parks in the city filled with jacaranda trees, but Caster prefers the streets, where obstacles on the familiar pavements force her to weave, and the hills test her endurance. Nobody bothers her as she runs, despite her fame. And when her body is in motion, her mind is clear. “I’m not thinking, I’m not analysing – it’s just free,” she says. “I’m just running. It’s me up against myself. That’s why I run. That’s why I do sport. I feel good, I feel free, I forget everything.”

Thousands of miles away from her preferred training routes, at the St Martin’s Lane hotel in London’s theatre district, Caster has finished her morning workout – part of a strengthening programme focusing on core and legs – in the Gymbox next to the hotel and is having a light breakfast of tea and melon slices. The St Martin’s Lane dining room has seen its share of celebrities, but Caster’s presence is attracting a few glances.

It’s not clear if the other diners recognise the Olympic and world champion 800-metre runner, but they certainly see somebody exceptional. A tall black woman dressed in a dark Nike track jacket and running trousers, large diamond studs in her ears, her hair in neat, flat cornrows, she lounges back in her chair comfortably. She has a diamond eternity ring on her wedding finger and an outsized technical watch on her wrist. She exudes confidence, positivity and focus; her deep voice carries across the room, the gentle South African accent adding emphasis to favourite phrases. “I talk too much,” she says, smiling at me sideways, recounting the “electrifying” Arsenal match she’d watched at the Emirates Stadium in north London the night before (although she’s a Manchester United fan).

Caster herself has the power to electrify a stadium. If you’ve ever seen her run the 800 metres, you’ll recognise her signature rolling style, and how she routinely cruises the first 400 metres, only to outpace the other runners with seemingly no effort and finish several long strides in front of the rest of the field.

She is consistently fast, although it should be noted that she doesn’t hold the world record in the women’s 800 metres – that is held by the Czech Jarmila Kratochvilova, who ran it in 1 minute 53.28 seconds at the World Championships in Athletics in Helsinki in 1983. Does Caster ever find it tough to win? “Oh, I don’t think it’s difficult to win,” she says, placing one hand on the table for emphasis. “But you need to understand: sports is not always about winning. It’s about doing what you love. Winning is, I would say, a bonus.” If so, she has cashed a fortune in bonuses lately: she remains unbeaten in 32 competitions since the 2016 Rio Olympics. “Since that day, I never lost a race.”

At the time we meet, however, Caster is permanently barred from competing in any middle-distance events at international level – that is, all races between 400 and 1,500 metres, which are Caster’s natural distances and include the 800 metres, in which she won gold at the last two Olympics. Preventing her from running is a controversial rule requiring women with naturally high testosterone to take hormone suppressants in order to compete. The rule came into effect on 8 May 2019 and is enforced by World Athletics, previously the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), the body that governs global track and field.

Caster does indeed talk a lot, in a thoughtful and powerful way, but there are some questions that she still can’t answer. The most pressing is: can she clear this latest hurdle and continue her story as one of the greatest ever 800-metre runners? Or will she join the rest of the South African team at the Tokyo Olympics in August to run a different distance? “I can do anything, from a 100 metres to a marathon,” she says assertively. “And that’s what I’ll do.”

Caster’s in a mignon maroon GG blouson with brown suede and tan leather details, and matching trousers by GUCCI. The earrings, worn throughout, are Caster’s own.

From the beginning of her international career, Caster has been hampered by sexist and racist harassment, speculation and harsh exposure. It began in 2009 when she was 18. In August of that year, in her first World Championships, in Berlin, she won gold in the women’s 800 metres in 1 minute 55.45 seconds, the fastest women’s time recorded that season. That time also shaved 8 seconds off Caster’s previous season’s best, and that, coupled with her muscly, atypical appearance, brought her to the attention of the IAAF, which claimed it had to investigate as these were “the sort of dramatic breakthroughs that usually arouse suspicion of drug use”. But what the IAAF actually did was subject Caster, who was born and raised a girl, to invasive sex-verification tests – tests to which she did not knowingly consent.

In a now notorious series of gaffes, the results were leaked to the press. Stories about a young athlete who “may or may not be a woman” were circulated globally. For almost a year, until July 2010, when the IAAF released its findings, Caster was prevented from running. When she was cleared – the IAAF did not make public the results, for privacy reasons – she was subjected to cruel remarks from other female runners, and her treatment in the public eye was unforgiving.

In a documentary made in 2009, just after the results of the tests became public, Caster appears timid and deeply affected by it all. It stands in complete contrast to how she is today. “Of course, emotionally you’d be affected by it, but then you tend to learn how to overcome your emotions,” she says. “The best way for me to live is to forget about it. I look at it, and I shy away from it. That’s the best way. When I was young, I was too emotional. Now, I can never be emotional – because I don’t have time for nonsense.” She looks exasperated. “If I want to be a leader, if I want to be a better person, I have to let go of whatever happened. I cannot undo it. I cannot change it.

“Now, if someone’s telling me, ‘Hey, you’re an XY, you’re a what-what!’ – who cares? I don’t give a damn about it! When I walk on that track, people will have their own opinions. I do not care what other people think. Whether you think I look like a man or whether you think I talk… I don’t care. I know that.”

For the record, despite her status as the most famous person with a “difference of sex development” (DSD), Caster has never publicly confirmed that she has hyperandrogenism – an excess of “male” hormones – or XY chromosomes, even if she jokingly refers to it.

Either way, the rules on testosterone have ensnared her. In 2011, the IAAF set the top limit for women at 10 nanomoles per litre (nmol / L) of blood – most females have levels from 1.12 to 1.79 nmol / L, while the male range is 7.7 to 29.4 nmol / L. In a statement last June, Caster revealed that in the past, in order to qualify, she had taken hormone-reducing drugs “that made me feel constantly sick and unable to focus.” But in 2015 the testosterone rule was suspended after the Indian sprinter Dutee Chand, who had been excluded from competition by it, won an appeal at the Court of Arbitration for Sport (Cas). If it wanted to keep its regulation in force, the IAAF was told, it would have to find further scientific evidence to show how testosterone enhances performance.

Meanwhile, Caster’s form in the 800 metres became unbeatable. In 2016, at the Rio Olympics, she won gold in 1 minute 55.28 seconds, despite carrying an ankle injury. At the winner’s press conference she echoed Nelson Mandela’s words to her in August 2009, after her World Championships win in Berlin, that “sport is meant to make people united”, and indignantly told reporters that it “is not about looking at how people look.” Two athletes complained about her afterwards. “Everyone can see it’s two separate races, so there’s nothing I can do,” a tearful Lynsey Sharp, who finished sixth, said in a television interview.

But by 2018 the IAAF had brought in new DSD rules, including a lower testosterone limit of 5 nmol / L – and specified that the regulation applied only in the middle-distance events that Caster runs. The organisation’s argument is that women with hyperandrogenism have an unfair advantage in terms of size, strength and power. Its president, Sebastian Coe, insists that the rule is right given the available evidence now. “It may be in 30 years’, 40 years’ time society takes a different view and we, you know, we have other classifications, I don’t know,” he said in an interview with CNN last September. “But at this point my responsibility was to protect two classifications [men and women], and that’s what we feel we’ve done.”

The writer and commentator Malcolm Gladwell is one of many who insist that Caster’s individual story shouldn’t undercut the need for sport – if it is to be fair – to have two clearly demarcated categories. “Semenya’s difference puts her outside the protected athletic category of ‘woman’ – and that makes it unfair to the other runners if she is allowed to compete,” he said in The New Yorker in 2016. “This is an argument that makes me – and most people – profoundly uncomfortable, because in all other walks of life we do not draw these kinds of hard lines. But the Olympics is not life!”

The need to maintain fair play in women’s sport and the need to protect the rights of a minority of athletes like Caster are intractably opposed. And the association’s rule means Caster can no longer compete internationally at her best distances.

Above, Caster wears a black cotton sweatshirt by PRADA. On the right, she's in a light blue techno-gaberdine jacket and matching shorts by BOTTEGA VENETA with a black, white and red cotton T-shirt, white Everyday Essential cotton socks and the white leather Air Max 90 Origins trainers, all by NIKE.

Last year at both Cas and the Swiss Federal Supreme Court, Caster and her lawyers argued that the rule was unfair, with both sides presenting scientific evidence to support their views. The rule stood, deemed a “necessary discrimination” to preserve the protected status of women’s sport.

Kelly Sotherton, the Olympic heptathlete and a member of the IAAF’s Gender Leadership Taskforce, which aims to increase the number of women involved in the governance of sport, has spoken out in defence of Caster and takes issue with how narrow the rule is. “Why does it target only a small batch of events?” she asks on the phone from Bath, where she coaches the Wasps rugby team. “If testosterone helps women to be strong and powerful, why isn’t [the rule applied to] the 100 metres or shot-put? There’s not enough science and not enough background.”

From the perspective of an athlete with DSD, it must feel like straight discrimination, but Caster tries not to let herself dwell on that. “If someone is targeting you and they deny that they’re targeting you – why, why, why must I focus on that?” she asks. “You let them do what they’re doing. You focus on what you can do best.”

Caster wears a black UltraBreathe sports bra, black running leggings, white Everyday Essential cotton socks and Air Max 2090 trainers in the Electric colourway, all by NIKE.

“I can do anything, from a 100 metres to a marathon. And that’s what I’ll do.”

In the past 18 months, Caster – who for many years was reluctant to speak out on the situation – has spent more time embroiled in legal challenges than she has in international competition. The ban was temporarily lifted on 3 June 2019, and at a Diamond League meeting in California at the end of that month, she beat the field by 20 metres with a time of 1 minute 55.70 seconds.

But her freedom to compete was only temporary: on 30 July 2019 the Swiss Federal Supreme Court reversed its decision, leaving Caster unable to compete for World Championships gold in Doha, Qatar, last September. “It was something I was prepared for,” she says now. “I made peace with this long ago. If it had been because of an injury, it would have been heartbreaking. With this situation, I knew it was a gamble.”

Instead, she appeared to turn to another sport – football, her first passion – and in September was spotted training with JVW FC, a women’s side founded by South Africa’s national captain, Janine Van Wyk. The plan is for her to sign up this year. “I don’t think it would be a massive transition,” Van Wyk says of the move. “She has the fundamentals. And knowing Caster, what kind of a person she is – very strong, mentally and physically – I don’t think she’d find it hard to adapt.”

Caster has also kept her sponsorships with Nike and the health insurer Discovery. But without a definite event to train for, she has had no coach. “I only need a rabbit in front of me,” she deadpans. She has maintained her fitness and follows a personal schedule of running and strength training. “It’s the small muscles that play a vital role. I need to strengthen my calves, strengthen my ankles. As an athlete, that’s the foundation, where it starts.”

While the appeals dragged on, it was unclear whether she would defend her Olympic gold at Tokyo. South Africa had named her as part of its preliminary team. But some weeks after our interview, in the absence of a decision on her appeal, Caster confirmed that she intends to run – in an event not covered by the testosterone rule. This means a sprint or a long-distance race. The statement confirming her intent reads: “I am committed to my career as a track and field athlete. I’m excited as I prepare for the upcoming Olympics in Tokyo.”

At times, the fight has been unbearably harsh. The IAAF last year argued in court that she was “biologically male”. She has said that she feels the authorities have used her as “a human guinea pig” to test their rules. If you ask Caster directly how she copes with it all, she’ll give an answer that echoes the messages of positivity she posts on her much-followed Instagram account. “It comes from being yourself,” she says emphatically. “Because in this world, we tend to live our lives how other people want us to live.”

One source of strength is her family. “I go home once a week sometimes, if I miss them a lot,” she says of her mother, Dorcus, and father, Jacob, who are now 60 and 70. They are still in Ga-Masehlong, the small village in the northern province of Limpopo where Caster was born as the fourth of five children. The four girls and their younger brother grew up in fairly basic conditions, with a strong Christian belief. “I didn’t choose this life,” Caster says. “God chose this life for me. He knew what I could handle. And when my parents gave birth to me, they also didn’t choose.”

The support of her family is the main thing that’s helped her to deal with intrusive questions about her sex, she says. “When people have opinions of me – ‘Has she got this?’ ‘Has she got that?’ –” she raises her voice: “Yes, I have it! That’s who I am!’”

Caster was, she says, a dutiful child, doing chores such as fetching firewood, but as a female, she was also taught to take care of her family. “I learned my responsibilities as a young girl. Whether you are 12 years old or not, you have to clean, do laundry, go to the forest, you have to go for water.” The siblings are close, although Caster is the only one involved in sport. “But they were good in sports – it’s genetic,” she adds.

From the age of four, Caster was football-mad; at six she started running. “I just wanted to be around the others, my peers, who were running. It was just for fun. Then we started competing.” Hloni Mtimkulu, a TV sports reporter with the South African channel eNCA, who has been to the village, told me in a call from Johannesburg, “When you grow up in the rural areas and make a name for yourself, you have to have a measure of discipline. You don’t have the state-of-the-art facilities, as we would have in the city.”

The barefoot racing Caster used to do on the dusty land around her village is evoked in a film she made for Nike last year. She and her wife, Violet Raseboya, 33, also a runner, own Masai AC, an athletics club in Pretoria for children who could be their own younger selves. Some of these children feature in the clip. Caster says a chance to practise regularly with others as a teen lit her ambition.

“After a few years, you realise, ‘If I train every day, if I can control myself, if I can be strong mentally and physically, then I can be unbeatable. I can win each and every race I run.’ But when you start, it’s about being with the other kids.”

The satin trompe l’oeil jacket and matching trousers worn here and in the opening image are by BALENCIAGA. The white leather Air Max 90 Origins trainers by NIKE.

Caster and Violet, who have been married for three years (they wed on 7 January, Caster’s birthday), first met 13 years ago at an athletics event – specifically, in the toilets. Violet was being escorted there by officials for a routine urine test. “She came in, and because I have a deep voice, she heard it,” Caster says. “She thought: There’s a man in this toilet. She asked, ‘Who’s this boy?’ and I said, ‘No, no, no. Don’t talk about things you don’t know. A boy cannot be in a woman’s toilet, you understand?’ She kept quiet, and then she looked at me – and then we started talking. It just clicked at that moment.” Violet says her first impression was of “a unique person, someone of her own calibre.”

They have a happy interdependence, Caster says, each filling in gaps for the other. “If she needs something, I have to do it, so if I don’t specialise in something, she does. I’d say she’s my stylist.” And what does Caster do for Violet? “I do everything!” Violet, rather revealingly, calls her wife “very strict, a straight talker and stubborn,” adding, “she has a good heart. She puts God first, then family.” The couple had two weddings – one traditional, one white – both covered in South Africa’s national media. They plan to start a family; Caster describes the project with characteristic rationality. “The deadline is between 25 and 35, so I’m still within that. I’ll plan a family when the right time comes. And then obviously the main target is just to make sure I can structure my life so I can never regret anything.”

South Africa was the first, and to date is the only, African nation to allow same-sex marriage, under the Civil Union Act, which came into force on 30 November 2006. But incidents of homophobia – some of them violent – do occur, so I want to know what her experience of social acceptance has been. “It’s up to you to accept yourself,” Caster says cautiously in reply. “It’s not up to a country, it’s not up to a society. It’s you.” Mtimkulu tells me, “In this country there are huge stigmas around homosexuality. Because she’s Caster, and with all the things she’s gone through, there is support for her.”

“I know I look like a man – so what? I know how I am. I’m a very happy human being.”

At the age of 29, when many athletes of her calibre would be feverishly calculating how many more years of top-level competition they could maintain, Caster has had a decision forced upon her. Last year the BBC quoted her as saying the testosterone case had “destroyed” her “mentally and physically”.

She claims now that the experience has been a positive one. “It’s good for me because I’m learning,” she says. “At least then I know better about myself. What about them? Each and every day, people are out there talking about me. I know I look like a man – so what? I know how I am. I’m a very happy human being.” It helps that she has the confidence of a champion. “I can do anything that I want. As a runner, I can run anything.” She says she doesn’t meditate, but “I believe in consistency, in repeating whatever you do. This is what I’d call meditation, because I do pray, and I repeat that every day.”

She looks unimpressed at the idea she should take testosterone-suppressing drugs, a solution which is also dubious from a medical-ethics perspective. “I’ll never run with drugs,” she says emphatically. “I’m not gonna take a drug that slows me down! That’s a crazy one. I’m not an idiot. Why would I take medication to please another man? You know, in this fight, it’s not about winning the fight, it’s about winning people’s hearts. Giving people a lesson so that they can understand what happens in the world of sports.”

But, I say, people want to see you race. “I know,” she says. “Of course they do.”

The current ban is widely viewed as not only discriminatory (the Court of Arbitration for Sport described it as such in its May 2019 conclusion) but by many – South Africans in particular – as racist. “I do think people [in South Africa] will think she is targeted specifically because she is black,” Mtimkulu says. She tells me that support at home for Caster has grown, particularly in the last year, as she has been fighting the ban. “Over the years, support for her has really increased. They think: Someone is being harassed now – this can’t still be going on after 10 years. For how she was born, for something that’s beyond her control.”

Caster understands the symbolism of her fight. “I break barriers and boundaries,” she says. “I believe I’m a face of change. I’m an example. It doesn’t matter in which category it is. It can be sports, it can be life, it can be education. Anything.” She has her own foundation, Masai AC, which she uses for charitable work and through which she wants to set up residential programmes for athletes. Unlike many other sports stars, she shows a disregard for the trappings of wealth (“What would I want with a yacht when there are homeless people?”).

At this summer’s Olympics, she has a chance to extend her glittering athletic record by taking on a new event – an audacious move that will not only prove her to be one of the greatest ever female track athletes but secure her reputation as a woman who refuses to be pushed out of the picture.

Without irony, she describes her status in South Africa as that of a “national asset”. “I have a responsibility to change things,” she says seriously. “To open eyes, to make people see things in a different way. Because remember, in this world we are all different races, genders, beliefs and norms, but when you’re a national asset, you’re a combination of all these things. I was given life by God. He’s the one who gave me talent; he’s the one who can take it. Of course you’ll be tested, but I always say if I’m given a task, I will complete it.”