I know I look like a man. I know I sound like a man and maybe even walk like a man and dress like one, too. But I’m not a man; I’m a woman. Playing sports and having muscles and a deep voice make me less feminine, yes. I’m a different kind of woman, I know, but I’m still a woman.
I began running competitively as a teenager in South Africa, and by age 18 I was competing on the international stage. In 2009, as I prepared to run in the Berlin World Championships, athletic authorities sent me for some medical testing. Because of my looks, there had been speculation from my fellow athletes, sports officials, the media and fans that I was not what I said I was.
I arrived at the medical appointment expecting to be checked for performance-enhancing drugs. Instead, at age 18, I had my first gynecological exam. Afterward, I learned that I had XY chromosomes, rather than the typically female XX pairing, and high levels of testosterone, produced by undescended testicles I didn’t know I had. In order to continue racing as a woman, I was told, I needed to have surgery to remove them.
In my culture, operations are viewed as dangerous things. Who in their right mind would cut their body open unless there was something wrong with them, unless they were injured or dying and the operation was the only thing that could save them? It was madness. If I had internal testicles or whatever they were saying I had, they were mine. I was healthy, I loved my body, and it had made me a champion. Why must I go and mutilate it to conform to someone else’s rules?
I know that some other athletes with conditions similar to mine have been offered this solution. Many are women of color and are from impoverished backgrounds. They see running as their only hope of making a life for themselves and their families. They are intimidated by a system they cannot understand, and they don’t have resources to fight for themselves.
Becoming a runner allowed me to support my family financially. My winnings had allowed my mother to purchase our family’s first refrigerator. But even aside from the money, nothing is worth violating what God has given you. No freaking way was I going to agree to their plan.
The position of the International Association of Athletics Federations (which in 2019 was renamed World Athletics), the governing body for track and field competitions, was that women with high testosterone levels had an unfair advantage, similar to the advantage that male athletes have over female athletes.
This is ridiculous: We are not men. I am a great runner, and I train with men, some of whom I can maybe give a hard time to on my best day, as any other elite female athlete could. But I have never been able to even approach an elite male runner’s time. Likewise, there are plenty of men with typical male testosterone levels who can only dream of beating a female athlete with typical female levels.
Despite my fast times, I hadn’t even broken the world record. And as far as I know, not one of the women who have run the 800 meters faster than me had my condition.
A gynecologist my team hired examined me and told the I.A.A.F. that if the issue was my testosterone level, estrogen could bring it down to below 10 nanomoles per liter, which is at the low end of the range for male testosterone levels. But my own doctor was worried. There was no research on elite athletes with my specific physical condition taking what was essentially birth control just to run competitively. She cautioned about the possible side effects: weight gain, blood clots, leg cramps, weakening of bones, vaginal bleeding, general feeling of illness, breast swelling, headaches. (A spokeswoman for World Athletics told The Times that athletes are advised to consult specialists to identify how they can comply with World Athletics rules and regulations and said it is not the organization’s role to recommend specific treatments.)
She advised me that I shouldn’t take the medication for more than four years. “You retire at age 21, Caster,” she told me. “Four years. You get one Olympics. Anything beyond that, and you could do irreparable harm to your body.”
I didn’t care about the side effects at the time. I was only 18, I was young and strong, and I thought I could get through anything.
I started feeling sick almost as soon as the medication entered my system. My muscles felt heavy, I was always tired, my head hurt, my brain felt cloudy, and I was nauseated. But after six months of the treatment, my testosterone level dropped to the level that the I.A.A.F. had deemed acceptable, and in July 2010, I returned to the track.
Everyone knew why I’d been absent; the results of the gender tests had been leaked by an Australian newspaper before I had even been told about the findings. I’d been called a hermaphrodite. I had to walk back out into the world with this thing hanging around my neck. I wasn’t oblivious to the stares and whispers from other runners. The media continued to speculate about me and my condition, but I would not speak about it. I wasn’t going to take on an identity that did not fit my soul because some doctors had taken my blood and images of my organs. I was not a hermaphrodite or anything other than a woman.
Despite the estrogen’s effect on me, I continued to take it for the next couple of years and competed in the 2012 London Olympics, where I won the silver medal in the 800 meters. After I returned home, a childhood knee injury flared up, and I recalled the gynecologist who had told me that I needed to retire right after I went to the Olympics. I was sidelined by injury for two years but continued to take the medication in anticipation of a comeback.
In 2015, shortly after I surprised myself by qualifying for the Beijing World Championships, I learned that Dutee Chand, an Indian runner who had also been identified as having a higher than typical level of testosterone, had refused to submit to the I.A.A.F.’s demands. She took the organization to court and won. The I.A.A.F. was given two years to find evidence that elevated testosterone levels give women an unfair advantage. I had been taking the drugs since 2009. That day, I threw my pills in the trash can.
For more than six years, a majority of my professional life, I had been running in a body that wasn’t my own. Thanks to Chand’s win, I — along with anyone else found to have what the I.A.A.F. called “differences of sexual development,” or D.S.D. — could run free.
As I prepared to run at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, some said my win in the 800 meters was inevitable — not because I’d been training and running well but because people felt I had an unfair advantage.
Yet they thought nothing of cheering on the seeming inevitability of wins by genetically gifted athletes like the sprinter Usain Bolt, who boasted a stride that was far longer than his peers’. No one suggested Michael Phelps’s dominance in the pool was unfair and he should have to take medication to ensure that he produced just as much lactic acid as his competitors or have surgery to fix his hypermobile joints. The swimmer Katie Ledecky was never accused of being a man because she smashed multiple world records and her ever-improving times in several events would qualify her for the men’s Olympic trials. But they said such things about me because I represented something that was seen as abnormal.
While my body was returning to its natural state, the World Anti-Doping Agency discovered that some of my peers were purposely altering theirs. Russian athletes had been bribing I.A.A.F. officials to look the other way while they continued competing, even though they had taken illegal drugs. Doped athletes had been winning medals and prizes, yet despite the I.A.A.F.’s talk of cleaning the sport of illegal drugs, it was people like Chand and me whose natural bodies were seen as abnormal and were being targeted and shamed out of the sport. We were the ones enduring public humiliation when people who had taken illegal drugs were often portrayed as just victims of their government’s thirst for medals. (Years later, a former head of the I.A.A.F., Lamine Diack, along with his son, would be convicted of corruption after accepting bribes linked to Russia’s doping program.)
In 2018 the agency announced new regulations that would apply only to athletes with D.S.D. and only to those competing in distances ranging from the 400 meter to the mile. So a woman with a difference in sexual development could compete against other women without altering her body in five of the eight main distances in competitive track racing but not in the distances I ran. I knew these rules would affect several other runners, but I had become the face of this thing. To me, this was personal. I was the runner closest to the 800-meter world record, and I felt the I.A.A.F. wanted to shut me down. To me, its restrictions aren’t about leveling the playing field; they are about getting certain types of women off the field completely.
(The spokeswoman for World Athletics told The Times that the regulations for female athletes running those distances were established after “scientific and medical research from athletes competing in our sport was clearly able to show that advantages existed.” In March, World Athletics replaced these regulations with a stricter rule that applied across a broader range of events.)
The guidelines announced in 2018 set a maximum testosterone level that was 50 percent lower than even the low level I had taken so many drugs to achieve. And I would have had to achieve and maintain that level for six months before I was eligible to compete. I refused to again subject myself to the mental anguish and physical torture of the poison. I was no longer an 18-year-old girl desperate to run. I was a world champion, an Olympic champion. I had achieved my dreams.
When they announced the regulations in 2018, the I.A.A.F. offered women with D.S.D. who refused the medication but still wanted to compete what it surely felt was a generous and sympathetic offer: We could change our distances, run any distance we wanted in the male category or run in some future intersex category, should it ever become available.
Both of these suggestions are insulting. I am not a man. I have spent years in legal battles, fighting to be able to race without restrictions. But today I could compete only if I altered my hormone levels. For me, participating in a third category of human gender identity would be accepting being othered, accepting the discrimination that I had fought against. It would mean giving up the identity I’d been born with and had never questioned to take on a new one I didn’t believe. Even though I understand that those in the medical community call me an intersex person because of the way my internal organs are structured, I do not call myself intersex. That identity doesn’t fit me; it doesn’t fit my soul.
Ms. Semenya is a runner from South Africa, a two-time Olympic gold medalist and the author of “The Race to Be Myself,” from which this essay is adapted.
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