South Africa’s Shining Athlete - Caster SemenyaJan 27, 2021 08:00AM ● By Boitumelo Masihleho
Born January 17, 1991, Mokgadi Caster Semenya grew up in the village of Fairlie, deep Limpopo, South Africa with her three sisters and a brother. Semenya played soccer at school and trained every day after school, often running from village to village. “I was always away from home, always in the bushes, and looking for adventure,” Semenya told the BBC in an interview.
Semenya attended Nthema Secondary School and later went on to study Sports Science at the University of North West.
In 2009, at the age of 18, Semenya won both the 800 meters (m) and 1500m races at the African Junior Athletics Championships in Bambous, Mauritius. In that same year, she competed at the World Championships in Athletics in Berlin, Germany, and won gold in the 800m World Championships with a time of 1:55.45 in the final, setting the fastest time of the year. Semenya was voted Track and Field News number one women's 800m runner of 2009. Sadly, it was at this time that there were growing suspicions over her gender.
The International Association of Athletics Federations requested Semenya to undergo a sex verification test to ascertain she was a female. The results were never published officially, but some results were leaked in the press and were widely discussed. In September 2009, Wilfred Daniels, Semenya's coach with Athletics South Africa (ASA), resigned because he felt that ASA “did not advise Ms. Semenya properly", and apologized for personally having failed to protect her. Sadly, in 2010 Semenya was denied opportunities to compete professionally as the IAAF had not yet released her results, but in July that year, the IAAF cleared Semenya to return to international competition.
Semenya did not enter the World Junior Championships or the African Championships, both held in July 2010, and opted to target the Commonwealth Games to be held in October 2010. Unfortunately, she did not compete due to injury. She returned to theWorld Championships in Athletics in 2011, where she came second but the winner, Mariya Savinova, was banned for doping in 2017 and her results were disqualified. Consequently, Semenya was awarded the gold medal. In the 2012 Summer Olympics, Semenya was chosen to carry South Africa’s flag during the opening ceremony. She later won a silver medal in the women's 800 meters of these games, but her medal was upgraded to gold when Savinova and four other Russian athletes were given a lifetime ban for doping violations at the Olympics and she was stripped of all her titles from 2010 to 2013.
In 2014, Semenya was awarded The Order of Ikhamanga by then-President Jacob Zuma, the highest award given to South African citizens who excelled in the fields of arts, culture, literature, music, journalism, or sport. The South African government has always been in support of Semenya, repeatedly accusing the IAAF of infringing Semenya's human rights and dignity. In April 2016, Semenya became the first person to win all three of the 400m, 800m, and 1 500m titles at the South African National Championships, setting world-leading marks. In August that same year, she won the gold medal in the women's 800 meters at the Rio Olympics.
Semenya continued her winning streak despite negative comments from fellow competitors and won the bronze medal in the 1500 meters at the 2017 World Championships held in London and won the gold medal in the women's 800m event. In 2018, the IAAF announced new ‘differences of sex development’ rules that required athletes with specific disorders of sex development, and certain androgen sensitivity to take medication to lower their testosterone levels. Many believed that this rule change was designed to target Semenya. In 2018, Semenya legally challenged the IAAF rules but in 2019, the Court of Arbitration for Sport rejected her challenge, paving the way for the new rules to come into effect on 8th May, 2019.
“For a decade the IAAF has tried to slow me down, but this has actually made me stronger,” she said in her statement to the Washington Post “The decision of the CAS 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.” Semenya appealed to the Federal Supreme Court of Switzerland who flip-flopped and eventually decided to deny her appeal. In November 2020 Semenya announced that she will file an appeal against the IAAF testosterone rule at the European Court of Human Rights. She also announced in 2020 that she had decided to switch to the 200 meters for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. The Olympics were postponed to July 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Despite all the controversy surrounding her gender and her success on the track, Semenya has focused on her sportsmanship and being a role model to upcoming athletes in South Africa. She married her wife, Violet Raseboya, in a traditional white wedding in 2015. Semenya is backed by sports giant Nike, which featured her in a big advertisement campaign in 2018 about self-belief.
Semenya has co-partnered with Shamila Ramjawan, founder of FamRam Solutions to advocate for girls’ menstrual health by providing menstrual cups to girls especially in rural areas.
Boitumelo Masihleho is a South African digital content creator. She graduated with a Bachelor of Arts from Rhodes University in Journalism and Media Studies and Politics and International Studies.
She's an experienced multimedia journalist who is committed to writing balanced, informative and interesting stories on a number of topics. Boitumelo has her own YouTube channel where she shares her love for affordable beauty and lifestyle content.