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It’s been 10 years since Madeleine Pape lost to Caster Semenya in the 2009 World Athletics Championships. She, like many other competitors at the time, resented Semenya’s victory.

“At the time, I was very quick to join other people around me in saying that, of course, Semenya had an unfair advantage,” Pape told Anna Maria Tremonti on The stream.

In the decade since that race, Pape has conducted research into the social fallout of Semenya’s victory. She has since changed her perspective and become a strong advocate for Olympic gold medalist South Africa.

Semenya lost her appeal on Wednesday against International Association of Athletics Federations rules aimed at reducing naturally high levels of testosterone in some female runners.

Tremonti spoke to Australia’s Pape to discuss her change of heart and why she strongly opposes the Court of Arbitration for Sport ruling. Here is part of their conversation.

What were your feelings at the time [in 2009]?

At the time, I was very quick to join other people around me in saying that of course Semenya had an unfair advantage.

I mean on the one hand, there were no other points of view presented at that time. I only heard one opinion on this topic, so I certainly wasn’t challenged to think differently or critically about where my own opinions came from.

And also, another part of that, I think in my case, is that it was somewhat selfish to be able to accuse him of having an unfair advantage, since I had been very disappointed with my own performance at these championships.

In some of the media coverage of the final in particular, there were competitors in the women’s 800-meter final who kind of spoke up. And I think that indicates, I guess, a kind of lack of sensitivity about it at the time.

You know, we really didn’t have the language or the kind of framework to make sense of what was going on and to be able to speak more respectfully about the issue.

How has your perspective on this breed and Ms. Semenya changed?

I’ve been on a real journey I guess since 2009. I couldn’t keep running due to injury and ended up coming to the US to do my PhD in sociology.

It was through this experience that, quite unexpectedly actually, I began to be exposed to the very vast literature written on this subject by women’s sport advocates and decided to delve into the scientific intricacies and ethics and to start questioning my own point of view.

So as it stands…I don’t think there’s room for those kinds of rules in women’s sports. And I think it’s actually in the interest of female athletes not to try to hinder the performance of superstars like Caster Semenya.

IAAF President Sebastian Coe leaves the Court of Arbitration for Sport after a hearing from Caster Semenya, South Africa’s two-time Olympic 800 meters champion. Coe said on Thursday that the IAAF will apply its testosterone regulations to the 1,500 meter event. (Laurent Gillieron/Associated Press)

It’s interesting because she’s not alone. Indian Dutee Chand also faced these restrictions and actually won and lifted them for a while, right?

Yes, it’s true. So that was in 2015. Dutee Chan, who is a 100 meter runner, appealed against the previous set of rules which was quite similar to the current set, to the Court of Arbitration for Sport, and I guess the fact that she was victorious in this case, which indicates the kind of scientific challenges here of trying to determine exactly how testosterone impacts athletic performance.

There is science to consider on both sides of this debate. And I guess that’s the debate the CAS tried to get through.

Athletic performance is very complicated. It is influenced by a whole range of different factors and testosterone is just one of them. So being able to come up with clear measures of the exact impact on athletic ability is a very big challenge.

Caster Semenya lost his appeal against IAAF testosterone rules on Wednesday. (File/Associated Press)

So how surprised are you that CAS is upholding the rules in Caster Semenya’s case?

I wouldn’t say I was surprised. I was more disappointed, I think.

I think since 2009 the sport of track and field has come a long way and a lot of it is thanks to Caster Semenya because her journey has challenged us to think differently about the complexity of sex and testosterone.

So I think given the outpouring of support we’ve seen for Semenya – not just recently, but over the last couple of years – points to a sport that’s in a good position to be able to take a different path on regulation women with high testosterone levels.


To discuss the decision against Semenya and what it means for the sports landscape, Tremonti spoke with:

  • Madeleine Pape, former competitor against Semenya and current doctoral candidate in sociology at the University of Wisconsin in Madison.
  • Gerald Imray, sports reporter for the Associated Press.
  • Robert Blecker, professor of law at New York Law School.

Click on “listen” at the top of this page to listen to the full conversation.


Written by Émilie Quesnel with files from CBC Sports. Produced by Alison Masemann, Howard Goldenthal and Cinar Kiper.