Let’s start at the finish, with the last question I put to Caster Semenya: When the time comes for the two-time Olympic 800m champion to hang up her spikes, how does she think the world will remember her career?
“I am the greatest that has ever done it,” she says. “That’s what I’ll be remembered for: being great, my talents. I feel unapologetic (about them) and I want people to remember the greatness.”
The 31-year-old South African is the headline star at Tuesday’s BAM Cork City Sports, where she will race over 3000m. It’s Semenya’s first visit to Ireland, and after she laughs about the “European weather” she admits “everything is good” since her arrival last Friday.
Her goal on Tuesday is simple, and relatively modest: to run under 8:50, a time that would rank her outside the top 50 on the women’s top lists for 2022 – strange territory for an athlete who was for so long indomitable.
But these days things are different. Semenya has been unable to compete at distances between 400m and the mile since 2019, when the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) ruled in favour of her sport’s governing body, the IAAF (now World Athletics), that athletes with differences in sexual development (DSDs) had to reduce their testosterone below five nmol/L to compete in the women’s category.
In 2020 Semenya appealed the decision to the Swiss Federal Supreme Court, which upheld the ruling, saying the regulations were “necessary, reasonable and proportionate” to ensure fair competition in women’s sport.
Individuals with 46 XY DSD are usually born with internal testes that cause their natural testosterone to sit in the male range of 7.7-29.4nmol/L, well above the typical female range of 0.12-1.79nmol/L. Semenya has since opted not to lower her testosterone by taking medication, which she said caused her to feel sick, gain weight and suffer panic attacks following a similar ruling on athletes with hyperandrogenism back in 2011.
While the regulations could eventually extend to other events, right now they apply only to track events where the link between testosterone and performance is most pronounced, leaving athletes with DSDs free to compete below 400m or above the mile.
Semenya switched to 200m in 2020 in a bid to qualify for the Tokyo Olympics but after clocking a best of 23.49, well outside the qualifying standard, she moved up to 5000m. She ran a personal best of 15:31.50 at the South African Championships in April, shy of what was needed to make this month’s World Championships, but missing that is “not really a problem” – her chief goal remains the Paris Olympics in 2024.
“The transition has not been easy, I’m a power athlete,” she says. “I’m a tall figure, I’m more muscular so I have to work on being very lean. Now it’s a matter of mastering how to run distance, and it’s coming. Rome was not built in a day.”
These days, Semenya covers 130km a week in training with a long run of 30km. “It was not easy the first year but now I’m getting used to it and I started enjoying distance more than speed.”
She’s coached by her wife, Violet, and they have two daughters, with their youngest celebrating her first birthday on Tuesday.
“This race is dedicated to her,” she says. Her eldest daughter, Oratile, will turn three in a few days. How has life changed for Semenya since she became a mother?
“It makes you a better person, you see life in a different way. Before it was all about myself but now I live for my family. There’s no difference on the track but when I walk off it, I’m a parent and I have to live based on my kids.”
Will her experience in recent years inform her approach as a parent?
“Yeah,” she says. “The main goal for me is to teach them to understand their rights – how to fight for themselves, how to live for themselves, not for any other people.”
Semenya continues to fight her cause. Early last year, following the federal court ruling, she took a case against Switzerland at the European Court of Human Rights, which has yet to be heard.
“It’s not about winning, I don’t really care about the outcome,” she says. “It’s about raising awareness about what’s happening with the authorities, how selfish they are, their motives. My optimal goal is just to expose those errors and then fight for justice – always.
“People need to realise that when you’re here for athletes, you better mean it. If you’re a leader and you say sport is for all, you should act like that.”
In recent weeks, swimming’s world governing body barred transgender women from elite female competitions if they had experienced any part of male puberty, and several other sports are likely to follow suit. While it’s obviously a very different issue to DSD athletes, there are some similarities, which triggers the question: what did Semenya make of that ruling?
“I really don’t have an answer because I don’t know,” she says. “As I’m not transgender, I don’t know how they’re feeling. It’s very complex and a complicated question so, for me, I wouldn’t answer for something I have no experience about.”
An athlete Semenya does feel a strong kinship with is her old rival Francine Niyonsaba, the Burundian who won silver behind her at the Rio Olympics and who moved up in distance following introduction of the DSD regulations. Niyonsaba is currently the quickest woman in the world over 3000m this year.
“We’re very good friends and, yeah, it’d be great if we could have that rivalry again at 5K,” says Semenya. “She always wants what’s best for me, I always want what’s best for her. We encourage each other.”
I ask Semenya about her daughters, and whether they might grow up to be runners. “I hope they do tennis, not running,” she says. “Running can be hard. You don’t want your kids to go through what you went through.”
Despite all she’s dealt with, Semenya remains a fan of the sport. She and her wife coach a running group in South Africa and despite not competing at the Tokyo Olympics last year, she followed the action from afar, saying it was “exceptionally good.”
Semenya still wants to be at the Paris Games in 2024, even if it’s not at her favoured distance.
“The goal was to run the 800 until I’m 35, but unfortunately I had to stop before time,” she says. “But the dreams never change. As an Olympian, you always want to be the greatest. At the moment it’s all about enjoying what I do. Being able to run, it’s a blessing.”