Caster Semenya is the fastest female 800 meter runner in the world this year. Now, as she prepares to take her first steps towards win her first Olympic gold in Rio de Janeiro tonight, the 25-year-old South African is being brought back into a familiar—and unwelcome—spotlight.
Semenya, who will compete in the 800 meter run in Rio, has hyperandrogenism, a condition that causes a person to produce excess testosterone. Because of this, Semenya has spent her career—and her very status as a woman—being subjected to public scrutiny.
The runner burst onto the scene in 2009 when she ran 1:55.45 to win gold in the 800 meters at IAAF World Championships in Berlin. Semenya won by more than two seconds, an eternity for the two lap event.
Shortly thereafter, Australian newspaper The Daily Telegraph revealed that the IAAF had subjected her to gender testing. According to the leaked results published in the story, Semenya had triple the amount of testosterone that a “normal” female would have. The IAAF cleared Semenya for competition in July 2010.
Semenya followed up her win in Berlin with a silver medal in the 800 meters at the 2011 IAAF World Championships in Daegu. The next year, she took silver in the event at the 2012 London Olympics. Both of those performances came after the IAAF passed rules requiring female athletes with hyperandrogenism demonstrate that their testosterone levels fall below the male range in order to compete against females.
Testosterone levels are measured in nanomoles per liter (nmol/L). According to the IAAF regulations, the “normal” testosterone levels for male athletes are anything above 10.5 nmol/L, while the normal range for females is between 0.1 nmol/L and 2.8 nmol/L.
“It is not entirely clear how the IAAF established a ‘normal’ range of testosterone for their regulations, especially since there is very little research on testosterone in women outside of clinical populations,” wrote Sari van Anders, an Associate Professor of Psychology, Women’s Studies, Neuroscience and Reproductive Sciences at the University of Michigan, in an email exchange with Paste. “From what I can tell, there were many subjective nonscientific decisions about whom to include and exclude when deciding on ‘norms.’ Interestingly, any citations about where this decision came from were from review papers, not empirical data papers, which means someone’s opinion got cited somewhere, which got cited somewhere, etc. So, even the scientific basis for the norms is based on someone’s subjective decision rather than objective empirical data.”