Why won’t Caster Semenya break world records?

Implications of intersex athletes and hyperandrogenism yet to be finally addressed

Consider this the hint of the century. There are a couple of women’s world records which either could or should be broken in the near future and, if or when they are, will be made permanently unattainable for the vast majority of other women.

The latest increasingly irrefutable evidence of that came inside the Bislett Stadium in Oslo on Thursday. In stretching her now unbeaten 21-month run, including 25 consecutive wins in the 800 metres, Caster Semenya again toyed with the field of women around her, waiting until the final 60 metres before making any sort of effort, then crossing the line in 1:57.59, her third Diamond League victory of the season.

With that Semenya slowed to a slightly less obvious jog, accepted the winner’s bouquet, and turned around to shake hands with the women behind her, most of whom were either sitting back on the track in utter exhaustion, or bent over, hands on their knees, the default position for any athlete swimming in a sea of lactic acid.

Only with two now familiar exceptions: Francine Niyonsaba from Burundi, who finished second in 1:58.18, and 21-year-old Kenyan Margaret Wambui, who took third in 1:59.17, both appearing marginally less winded than Semenya.


Familiar because Niyonsaba and Wambui also finished second and third behind the South African woman in the Olympic 800m final in Rio last summer, and since the IAAF was forced to suspend its ruling on intersex athletes and hyperandrogenism, in 2015, no other woman has finished ahead of these three.

The Bislett Stadium, first constructed in 1917, has rarely witnessed a race like it in the 100 years since. It’s known as the world record arena, 65 of which have been set here over the years; it’s not a place where athletes come to run within themselves. Is it that Semenya doesn’t want to try any harder? Or is perhaps told not to? And if so why?

What is certain is Semenya has given little impression she’s been racing flat out since that IAAF ruling was lifted, effectively at the end of 2015, which meant all intersex athletes were free to compete without undergoing hormone treatment to bring their testosterone levels within what is considered normal female range.

No one has ever said that’s a straightforward process, as the term “intersex” can apply to a range of variations in sex characteristics, or someone who does not fit typical binary notions of male or female bodies. It’s all part of that slippery grey sporting gender debate, also known as the either/or debate, or simply the is she/is he debate.

The IAAF, by way of reminder, introduced the testosterone limit following Semenya’s breakthrough runs in 2009, when as an 18-year-old she won the World Championship 800m in Berlin in 1:55.45; that was also followed by leaked reports of gender testing on Semenya, which revealed she had no womb or ovaries but internal testes and high levels of testosterone.

Testosterone limit

With that the IAAF introduced a sort of testosterone limit for women, requiring those over it to lower it with hormone treatment. The upper limit was set at 10 nmol/L (it found that 99 per cent of female athletes had testosterone levels below 3.08 nmol/L, so the upper limit was threefold higher to ensure it would apply only to those with hyperandrogenism, or else were doping.)

Around the same time, this IAAF policy on hyperandrogenism was successfully challenged by Indian sprinter Dutee Chand at the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS), in July 2015, who deemed her high testosterone levels to be natural, and gave the IAAF two years to produce more evidence to prove it was unequivocally performance enhancing.

The IAAF have until the end of next month to produce that evidence, president Seb Coe recently suggesting it was taking some time, as “it is not unreasonable for us to want to make sure we properly understand going forward why that decision was made and what we can do, if there is anything, to address it, as we do need to resolve this...”

Semenya, meanwhile, at age 26, is in her athletic prime, and given all of the above looks well capable of breaking the women’s 800m world record of 1:53.28, which has stood since 1983 to Jarmila Kratochvilova, of the former Czechoslovakia – the still longest standing record in the books, male or female, and widely considered to be the result of her artificially high testosterone levels and a relic of the old Eastern Bloc systematic doping

By cosmic coincidence, Jeré Longman of the New York Times tracked down Kratochvilova, now 66, at her home in rural Bohemia for an article this week, entitled 'Track's Most Resilient (and Suspect) Record Is in Danger'; strangely, it makes no reference to Semenya, but puts it to Kratochvilova her record might be erased under the new proposal for clean world records.

“It will still be in my head, and the head of others,” she replies, consistently denying she was ever doped, despite her name appearing in old Czech sporting files indicating as much.

Until, or indeed after, the IAAF and CAS make a final ruling on intersex athletes and hyperandrogenism, and whatever implications come with that, is it not at least right or fair to expect the likes of Semenya to be racing flat out? Or trying their best?

Consider say all three – Semenya, Niyonsaba, and Wambui – racing a mile, set up to pace each other and target the women’s world record of 4:12.56, which has stood to Russia’s Svetlana Masterkova since 1996. Might they actually come close to producing the first women’s sub-four? And if so might that be considered the race of the century?