Caster Semenya Is Exceptional, Just Like Other Elite Athletes

As expected, the phenomenal Caster Semenya won a gold medal for South Africa in the 800 meters last week. Also as expected, there was hardly a mention of her victory without far more time given to the controversy that follows her whenever she competes.

From her first World Championship win in 2009 at the young age of 18 until now, her gender has been debated in the court of public opinion. Her body, her womanhood, and her identity have been brutally picked apart, and she has been subjected to constant violation and humiliation. All because she wants to run, all because she is faster than other runners, all because she is strong, all because she does not fit western stereotypes of female beauty.

And yes, the suspicion of Semenya that led to testosterone testing and the horrifically unethical release of her test results showing “higher than average” testosterone levels is racist and sexist in nature. Semenya was singled out because her physical strength was deemed “too manly,” because her speed was “too fast,” because her features were “too strong.” That a black, queer woman would find herself subjected to such treatment is no accident. Female champions — even those who dominate their fields, like Katie Ledecky — are never subjected to this same degradation when their physical presentation matches western stereotypes of femininity.

But all of the talk about Semenya’s testosterone levels and whether her presence is “fair” to sport misses a fundamental point: Yes, Caster Semenya is exceptional. She is supposed to be. She is an elite athlete.

I know that we like to believe in underdog stories. We like to see champions who started out as Plain Janes or Everyday Joes and somehow worked themselves up to legendary status and think, “That could be me.”

But it can’t be you.

Think you can be Michael Phelps one day? What is your wingspan?

Think you can be Simone Biles? Are you 4’8”?

Want to stand next to Brittney Griner on the U.S. basketball team? Better grow to 6’8”.

These athletes all have exceptional traits, and while these traits may indeed give them an edge over other athletes, we do not give these traits sole credit for their wins. We do not assume that every short woman will become a gymnastics champion or that every man with long arms will bring home swimming gold medals. We also do not demand that our Olympic swimmers have “average” wingspans or that our basketball players all have “average” height. We celebrate our elite athletes as champions, knowing that they took these advantages, added 80 billion hours of grueling training, and pushed themselves to the full and amazing limits of their potential.

Semenya may be exceptional in her testosterone level — although what advantage this actually gives runners has not been proven, and we don’t have calculations for how uncommon high testosterone levels are in elite female athletes.

But do you know how else she is exceptional?

Semenya is exceptional for waking up at 3:30 every morning for years to train. Semenya is exceptional for being able to channel her heartbreak at being forced out of soccer because she’s a woman into an amazing running career. Semenya is exceptional because even under intense scrutiny, after horrific abuse by media and other athletes, even after being banned from her sport and forced to undergo gender testing, even after being forced to artificially lower her testosterone levels via harmful drugs — she continued to train and run and come back to win gold in Rio.

Caster Semenya is exceptional — in the best ways possible. And we should be celebrating her strength, dedication, and courage. We should marvel at the beauty with which she runs, knowing that it is the result of years of training and triumph through adversity. Yes, Caster Semenya is stronger and faster than other athletes, but the real advantage is that she is braver.

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Lead image: flickr/Jon Connell

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