Caster Semenya was an 18-year-old runner, from Limpopo in South Africa, when she made her debut on the international stage at the Berlin World Track and Field Championships in August 2009. She won the 800-metre final in 1:55.45, nearly two and a half seconds faster than the runner-up, Janeth Jepkosgei Busienei from Kenya.
Only a few hours after the end of the race, the International Association for Athletics Federation (IAAF) questioned her medal and announced an investigation into her gender. Elisa Cusma of Italy, who finished sixth, told Italian journalists: ‘These kinds of people should not run with us. For me, she’s not a woman. She’s a man.’ With her bulging biceps, washboard six-pack, squarely set jaw and an expression on her face that says ‘don’t mess with me’, Semenya hardly looks like a damsel in distress. She is an athlete, an elite one who has worked and trained hard to get to where she is, and whose body is the result of interaction between her biology and her years of training.
Yet it was her very athleticism, the IAAF said – the ‘incredible improvement in the athlete’s performance’, suggestive of ‘the sort of dramatic breakthroughs that usually arouse suspicion of drug abuse’ – that triggered the investigation and subsequently banned Semenya from competition for months.