NPR’s Lulu Garcia-Navarro talks to Madeleine Pape, who once faced Caster Semenya, about the problem of runners with abnormally high testosterone levels.


Caster Semenya won what could be his last 800m race last Friday in Doha. His dominance in the event could come to an end due to new regulations that come into effect on Wednesday. The new rules prohibit women like Semenya, with naturally high levels of testosterone, from competing in certain events in women’s competition unless they take medication to lower those levels. When asked if she would abide by the new regulations, Semenya said no.

Madeleine Pape was an Olympic runner for Australia who once faced Semenya. She is now a doctoral student. candidate in sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. And she told us about when she faced Semenya in 2009 at the IAAF World Championships in Berlin.

MADELEINE PAPE: I lost against Semenya, among others in the heats. And I was, after that, very quick to join the chorus of voices around me that were beginning to accuse Semenya of having an unfair advantage. And it really came to a head on the night of the final, when the IAAF, which is our governing body in athletics, publicly announced that they were going to investigate Semenya’s biological sex. So that really set the tone for how people talked about her afterwards.

And for me, you know, I guess I didn’t really come across any alternative points of view. It was the only point of view that was expressed around me at the time. So I definitely fell into the camp of jumping on the bandwagon and repeating the things that were being said around me.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And how did you change your mind?

PAPE: Yeah, it was a – it was quite a long trip, actually. About a year after those World Championships, I suffered a career-ending injury and decided to move to the United States to start a PhD. in sociology.

And I stumbled upon this topic and the very vast literature that has been written about it from the perspective of advocates for women’s sport who have examined at length the very many scientific and ethical dilemmas surrounding the exclusion of women who have high testosterone levels.

Initially, I was very confronted with this discovery. And it’s really over time that my own vision has changed. And I would say something really critical in that process was meeting women who had high testosterone, befriending women who had high testosterone, and thinking about how they were personally affected by this kind of sports practice.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: It’s a story, of course, about regulating women with naturally high testosterone levels. But it’s also important to remember that this is also the story of one athlete in particular and one woman in particular, Caster Semenya. There’s the question of her gender in that, but there’s also the question of her race in that. Do you think that plays a role in your opinion?

PAPE: To be honest, I think those concerns are fair. I mean, I think there are questions that need to be answered as to why Caster Semenya, in particular, drew this level of scrutiny and this level of determination from the IAAF to exclude him from the competition because when we compare his margin over his competitors to other successful athletes of that time, they enjoyed greater margins over their competitors. And yet, for some reason, we settled on Caster Semenya as the athlete whose margin of victory became problematic for us.

So I think it’s a complicated question, but I think it’s entirely fair to ask why women of color in the Global South and in sub-Saharan Africa, in particular, are overrepresented among women charged with have an unfair advantage.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And there is, of course, the question of his sexuality. Semenya is a lesbian.

PAPE: You know, when you think about why Semenya, and why her performances, in particular, raised the ire of a number of people, you have to wonder if sexuality plays a role. I mean, she’s openly lesbian. She is – I would describe her as gender nonconforming in terms of presentation.

And I think the sport of track and field, as much as I love the sport, and, you know, it’s the No. 1 love in my life, I think we still have a bit of a way to go when it’s about accepting both diverse gender identities, and also letting go of our ideas about heterosexuality.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The words fair and unfair are used a lot in this conversation. What do people really mean when they call something righteous?

PAPE: I really think that what underlies the motivations of a lot of people in this, you know, whatever point of view you take, people really want to see women’s sport become stronger and be valued.

And so what really inspires me, on this topic, is the leadership that we’ve seen from women’s sports organizations, like the Women’s Sports Foundation here in the United States, also the International Task Force on Women and sport, activists like Billie Jean King, who has come out in favor of Caster Semenya and sees Semenya’s presence as a good thing for women’s sport.

So I’m following their lead in saying, you know, women’s sports will benefit from Semenya’s participation, and we have the opportunity to include her here.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: It was Madeleine Pape. She was an Olympic runner for Australia who once competed against Caster Semenya. Thanks very much.

POPE: Thank you very much for inviting me


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