Just two days after a rule was upheld that would prevent her from competing in her best event, Caster Semenya cruised to a victory over an elite field in the 800 meters in Doha on Friday.
It was a fitting — and wonderfully characteristic — response to a ruling by the Court Arbitration for Sport that will go into effect on Wednesday, prohibiting her from racing against women in that event unless she reduces the level of natural testosterone in her body. And it encapsulated how Semenya, a gay black woman from a South African township, has dealt with a decade of almost unimaginable adversity: with the kind of poise and stoicism few of us are able or ever compelled to muster.
While there’s no easy answer to the broader debate about who belongs women’s sports, it’s spectacularly unfair that Semenya has had to endure this toxic combination of racism, sexism and homophobia; the court even admitted that its ruling discriminates against her. No one disagrees.
We can only speculate about how she feels when she’s forced to expose her own body to astonishing degrees of invasive scrutiny, and is called a man and far worse. That’s because she keeps quiet.
But we do know how she works: She races to win, she shakes her opponents’ hands and she follows the rules. Meanwhile, she stays true to herself. And she perseveres.
Her ability to behave like this — to endure — is a trait of real champions, athletic and otherwise. We should celebrate her demonstration of character just as we do for our other heroes. Her fight is just as great a feat. As is her athleticism; it’s a shame that we hear more about the hormone levels of one of the most decorated female athletes today than her achievements.
Paradoxically, Semenya has become one of the world’s most visible female athletes right when she’s being told she can’t be one. She’s impeccable (she has to be), exhibiting all the qualities of sportsmanship we look for in athletes, regardless of whom they race.
What’s more remarkable is that, Semenya, and her determination to keep showing up, are forcing us to pay attention to female athletes, and the extent to which we value them.
That attention has been scant. One recent survey found that 0.4 percent of sports sponsorships go to women. And when was the last time a woman’s track race featured prominently in news coverage? Who aside from a handful of enthusiasts can name the other women in photos of the starting lines in Semenya’s 800-meter races — the ones that would take her place on the podium?
One of those women is the Olympian Kate Grace. She was in a photo of a 2016 race that accompanied a New York Times Instagram post about the court’s ruling this week. The photo showed Semenya winning a qualifying heat for the 800-meter final at the Olympics in Rio, with Grace behind her, in third place.
To Grace, that photo has a different significance: It showed, she told me, “the moment in the last 10 years that most altered my life.”
“I’m behind her, grimacing to finish,” she added. “I’m about to run 1:58 in the 800 meters, a personal record, to nab the qualifying spot for the Olympic final.” Just a year earlier Grace had been too injured to run. So, for her, that photo is a depiction of her validating an entire athletic career. That’s what we should celebrate, for all the women involved. But that moment is getting exposure now only because of the focus on Semenya, not because of all those women’s accomplishments.
If Semenya ends up being unable to compete in the 800 meters, there is plethora of talent to fill the void. Beyond Grace, there is Ajee Wilson, the American who won the bronze medal at the most recent World Championships. There are also Grace’s teammates on the Bowerman Track Club, Colleen Quigley, Courtney Frerichs and Shelby Houlihan, whose names have been in The Times exactly once and who are aiming to qualify for the Olympics next year, with help from their other teammate Shalane Flanagan. We should care about all of them.
Without Semenya, we wouldn’t be seeing them or talking about them right now.
Of course we can debate Semenya’s testosterone levels, and we should debate how we should define who belongs in women’s sports, if we want to preserve them. (And we do; even Semenya wouldn’t be able to rival men on the global stage.) But those debates alone aren’t going to save women’s sports. Watching them, and investing in them, and being fans of them will. Let’s celebrate these women more often than just when we’re telling Semenya she can’t run with them.
Meanwhile, Semenya has said this: “I know that the I.A.A.F.’s regulations have always targeted me specifically. For a decade the I.A.A.F. has tried to slow me down, but this has actually made me stronger. The decision of the C.A.S. will not hold me back. I will once again rise above and continue to inspire young women and athletes in South Africa and around the world.”
It’s ironic that there is such an outcry over a sport that’s relatively ignored in the first place. Yet this referendum on the value of women’s sports could be good for it, and Semenya’s dignity amid such adversity is an example of why we should love women’s sports in the first place. If we pay attention.