Even now, more than 30 years later, I remember my shame. I was running a 10K co-ed road race, and found myself being funneled toward the men’s finish line as I started my final kick. “But I’m a girl,” I said to the race volunteer, several times, trying to convince him that I needed to be redirected to a different finishing chute. Finally, the man acquiesced, letting me proceed, but precious time had been lost, and my mind was no longer focused on achieving a personal best.
This was not the first time I’d been mistaken for a male while running, nor would it be the last. Perhaps for that reason, I’ve followed the athletic career of South African Caster Semenya closely, including last week’s court ruling demanding that Semenya take medication to tamp down her body’s naturally-produced testosterone, or cease competing as a woman altogether. Even though Semenya is wicked fast — she holds the world record in the 800 meters — I’ve felt some affinity for Semenya, knowing only a modicum of the vast shame she must experience as her body and her sex are interrogated over and over again on an international stage.
And it’s this interrogation, by sports governing bodies, by journalists, by her competitors, that reflects our collective inability to let people be exactly who God created them to be. It’s also this plea for “fairness” by those with power and privilege that reveals the vast difference between being fair and being right, between demanding a narrow definition of femaleness, and recognizing how culturally limited our understanding of femininity really is.
When Semenya won gold in the 800 meters at the 2009 World Championships, questions started to emerge about whether she’d come by her victory honestly. That year, the International Association of Athletics Federation (IAAF) compelled Semenya to take a number of humiliating sex verification tests to prove she was a woman. In the years that followed, scrutiny about Semenya’s sex continued to follow her, even as she silently racked up more wins, including a 2016 Olympic gold medal. In 2018, the IAAF announced that female athletes who had a hyperandrogenous diagnosis, including Semenya, needed to take medication to lower the naturally-occurring testosterone levels that characterized the disorder. Although Semenya challenged this ruling, it was upheld on May 1, meaning Semenya will not be allowed to compete in women’s races unless and until she alters her physical make-up with medication.
By doing so, the ruling said, the playing field will be more fair to other competitors. But by doing so, Semenya would no longer be the person God had uniquely created her to be.
And let’s face it: athletes who compete at their sports’ highest levels are uniquely created. This is something we often celebrate when we cheer for our favorite sports heroes, expressing awe for their almost super-human capacity to excel. Think of Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps, whose incredible 6’7’’ wingspan, size 14 feet, and huge hands equipped him to win 23 Olympic gold medals. Or sprinter Usain Bolt, a dominant international force for over a decade, whose 6’5” height meant he took far fewer strides in a race than his competitors. Or Barry Bonds, whose visual acuity made it possible for him to see a 90-mile per hour baseball clearly enough to smack it out of a ball park. (Though, in his case, steroids seemed to help, too.)
Sports federations never asked Phelps to shorten his arms a few inches to make swimming competitions more fair, nor Bolt his legs; Major League Baseball never demanded that Bonds wear sight-altering googles. Such a suggestion seems almost laughable: If an athlete’s superior performance is fueled by natural means, rather than through banned substances, why put limitations on that physical greatness, leveling the playing field so that more competitors have a shot at victory?
Why then make the case that Semenya needs to alter her body to compete?
The answer to this question is written right there, in her body, and in the ways she also embodies difference: as a Black woman, as a lesbian, as a person who does not fit our expectations for what someone who identifies female should look like, nor how they should navigate the world. Her performance on such a public stage challenges our assumptions about what it means to be a strong, fast female athlete, and rather than celebrate her amazing uniqueness, she has been asked to change, to align more closely with what we’ve decided — by cultural fiat alone — is acceptable for how women should act, and think, and look, and even how they should run.
Put more bluntly, those with power and privilege are once again demanding that a Black woman modify her body for the comfort of others — in this case not only Semenya’s competitors, decrying “unfair” races (see here for an example), but also anyone who finds it justifiable to comment on Semenya’s appearance and skill as a runner. The IAAF ruling fundamentally codifies the belief that Black women’s bodies can be too much, just as they are, and that — as throughout history — Black women need to accommodate those around them, diminish who they are, if they are to be acceptable, and thus accepted, in the spaces they enter. In Semenya’s case, this diminishment is not just symbolic, but literal as well.
It might seem like international sports competitions have little relevance for justice-minded Christians, and we may believe there is not much we can do to support an athletic superstar like Semenya. But her case should serve to remind us of the many ways those who are privileged continue to establish expectations for others, demanding that they conform rather than acknowledging that there is beauty in difference.
But justice does not look like leveling a playing field — in the name of fairness — by making some people conform. Justice requires that we give people the freedom to be exactly who God created them to be. Justice means advocating for those who lack the freedom to flourish, not only in international athletics, but also in our churches, our workplaces, our communities.
Justice is proclaiming that our notions of masculinity and femininity are themselves problematic, a social construct that has little to do with what people look like, or how they run through the world.
Back in 2009, when Semenya won her first World Championship, she said that interrogations about her sex did not bother her: “I see it all as a joke, it doesn’t upset me. God made me the way I am and I accept myself.” After a decade of scrutiny, I hope she feels the same way, though I also know how challenging expectations can be, how they can wear you down, make you feel unworthy.
Given the attention this most recent judgment has garnered, and the support from countless fans, I also hope Semenya will continue to resist the IAAF demands that she alter who she fundamentally is, or run in men’s competitions, even though she is a woman: A woman who God formed to run fast and strong. A woman who is fearfully, wonderfully made in God’s own remarkable image. A woman who deserves to be celebrated, just as she is.