Caster Semenya is many things: a mother of two; a two-time Olympic champion; a national hero in South Africa; an icon for millions of people around the world. But ever since she was a teenager, her life had been lived in the eye of an almighty storm.
he is 31 now and heading towards the home stretch of his career. How will she remember it every time she decides to hang up her pointe shoes? “I’m the greatest to ever do it,” she says. “That’s what people will remember me for: my talents. I feel shameless (about them) and I want people to remember the greatness.
Semenya is the star attraction at tonight’s BAM Cork City Sports, where she will race the women’s 3,000m. It’s her first visit to Ireland, and after laughing at the ‘European weather’, she admits that ‘everything has been fine’ since arriving last Friday.
Her goal is simple, and relatively modest: to beat 8:50, a time that wouldn’t put her in the top 50 fastest women in the world this year – strange territory for an athlete who has been indomitable for so long.
But now things are different.
Semenya has not been able to compete in distances ranging from 400m to the mile since 2019, when the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) ruled in favor of the sport’s governing body, the IAAF (now World Athletics ), that athletes with differences in sex development (DSD) had to reduce their testosterone below five nmol/L to compete in many women’s events.
In 2020, Semenya appealed the decision to the Swiss Federal Supreme Court, which upheld the decision, saying the regulations were “necessary, reasonable and proportionate” to ensure fair competition in women’s sport.
Individuals with DSD 46 XY are typically born with inner testicles that cause their natural testosterone to be in the male range of 7.7-29.4 nmol/L, well above the typical female range (0.12 at 1.79 nmol/L).
Semenya has since opted out of lowering her testosterone with medication, which she says made her sick, gained weight and suffered panic attacks when she tried it in 2011.
While the regulations may eventually extend to other events, they currently only apply to track events where the link between testosterone and performance is most pronounced, leaving athletes with DSD free to compete in below 400 m or above the mile.
Semenya ran a record 5,000m 15:31.50 in April, short of what was needed for this month’s World Championships, but missing that is ‘not really a problem’ – her main focus being the Paris Olympics.
“The transition hasn’t been easy, I’m a power athlete,” she said. “I’m tall, I’m more muscular, so I have to work on being very lean. Now it’s about mastering the distance, and it’s coming. Rome wasn’t built in a day. “
Semenya runs 130km a week in training these days with a 30km long run.
“It wasn’t easy the first year, but now I’m getting used to it. I began to appreciate distance more than speed.
She is coached by his wife, Violet, and they have two daughters, the youngest of whom is celebrating her first birthday today.
“This race is dedicated to him,” she said. His eldest will be three years old in a few days. How has life changed for Semenya since becoming a mother?
“It makes you a better person. Before, it was all about me, but now I live for my family.
Will his experience of recent years shed light on his approach to parenthood?
“Yeah. The main goal for me is to teach them to understand their rights: how to fight for themselves, how to live for themselves.
Semenya continues to fight for her cause. Early last year, following the federal court’s decision, she filed a lawsuit against Switzerland in the European Court of Human Rights, which has yet to be heard.
“It’s not about winning, I don’t really care about the outcome. It’s about raising awareness of what’s going on with the authorities, their selfishness, their motives. My goal is just to expose those mistakes and then fight for justice, always.
“People have to realize that when you’re here for the athletes, you better mean it. If you are a leader and you say sport is for everyone, you should act like that.
In recent weeks, swimming’s world governing body banned transgender women from competing in elite women’s competitions if they had experienced any part of male puberty. While this is a very different issue for DSD athletes, the similarities trigger a question for Semenya: what did she think of this decision?
“I really don’t have an answer because I don’t know. Since I’m not transgender, I don’t know how they feel. This is a very complex and complicated question so, for me, I wouldn’t answer for something I have no experience with.
A Semenya athlete feels a strong kinship with her old rival Francine Niyonsaba, the Burundian who won silver behind her at the Rio Olympics and progressed in distance following the introduction of DSD regulations. Niyonsaba is currently the fastest woman in the world over 3,000m this year.
“We are very good friends and it would be great if we could have this 5k rivalry again. She always wants what’s best for me, I always want what’s best for her. We encourage each other. »
Could Semenya’s daughters follow her path to running? “I hope they play tennis,” she says. “Running can be tough. You don’t want your children to go through what you went through.
Despite everything she had to face, she remains a fan of the sport. Semenya and his wife coach a running group in South Africa and although they didn’t compete in Tokyo, she followed the Olympics from afar, saying it was “exceptionally good”.
She still wants to be at the Paris Games in 2024, even if it’s not at her preferred distance. “The goal was to run the 800m until I was 35, but unfortunately I had to stop early,” she said. “But dreams never change. As an Olympic athlete, you always want to be the best.