The International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) subjected her to some kind of "gender testing" and confidential physical findings were leaked. The young girl's individual humanity was quickly overshadowed by athletic politics. In a South African magazine, Semenya insisted:
After some kind of settlement with the IAAF and other athletic bodies, she resumed competing, winning silver medals at the 2011 World Championships and the 2012 Summer Olympics, both in the 800 meters.
Meanwhile, sports scientists and the athletic authorities began to develop a more sophisticated understanding biological gender variations and of the rare, but utterly real, existence of intersex athletes. My understanding is superficial, but it seems men develop with Y chromosomes and high production of testosterone (T); women have X chromosomes and lower T levels. The amount of T is thought to account for the 10-12 percent gap between elite male and female athletic performances. At the elite level, all great athletes are freaks of nature as well as extremely disciplined practitioners of their sport, but the gap between male and female performance remains. The reason to have women-only sports is so that women get a chance to compete at all. Without such gendered competition, women's results would NEVER show up or be appreciated. Sports scientist Ross Tucker explains:
Okay, but neither the IAAF nor sports science completely understands how and why testosterone aids performance. There seem to be a range of possibilities. None of this is simple. The IAAF set a standard for allowable levels of T in women athletes and required competitors who produced higher levels to suppress their T with medications or possibly surgically. (Semenya's good by not stellar results from 2010 to 2015 were achieved under this regime.) The sports journal Flotrack explained what happened then:
The IAAF failed to convince the CAS that it had evidence supporting the T level it was demanding, so this year at the Rio Olympics, women athletes who may be intersex or otherwise not biologically gender-standard, will be competing without having to meet the lower testosterone standard.
In this "no rules" environment, many commentators expect Caster Semenya to have the fastest races of her life -- and thereby to re-ignite a terrible barrage of controversy, not grounded in either science or sports. What's changed since 2009 is that at least some sports media understand a little better that women come in many sorts. So some reports read like this:
Meanwhile, transgender and other non-gender-standard athletes have joined the conversation. Joanna Harper is a medical physicist at Providence Portland Medical Center in Oregon and a competitive runner.
USA Today reached out to an athlete who suffered through one of the first highly publicized episodes of "sex testing" that have forced athletic governing bodies to try to understand the mutability of gender.
As the Rio Games play out, I hope these women are listened to. This won't be easy. But these women are people and great athletes as well as test cases for evolving standards.
The heats in the women's 800 meter race begin on Wednesday, August 17.