Human Rights Violations, Psychological Damage and Caster Semenya

Most of us know Mokgadi Caster Semenya as the South African middle-distance runner who’s gender came into question after she blew away her competition during the women’s 800 meters at the 2009 World Championships with a then world record time of 1:55.45.

I remember when her gender came into question first in the media, then among my peers who insisted due to Semenya’s masculine appearance, voice and astonishing athletic feats, that she had to be a man, or at the minimum, not all woman.

The International Associate of Athletics Federation (IAAF) reported that they had to investigate Semenya after she made improvements in both her 800 and 1500 meter times by 8 seconds and 25 seconds respectfully, improvements in performance that usually arouse suspicions of performance enhancement drugs (PEDs) use. At this time, the IAAF also tricked Semenya and performed a gender test without her permission, something she confirmed during an interview with NBC before her Olympic race in London. Semenya stated that she knew she was being tested for PEDs, something she was used to, but didn’t know she was going through a gender test until the testing became more of a violation, poking and probing in areas she knew weren’t part of any PEDs test she had ever been through.

If this is true, which various sources confirm, it is a violation of her human rights. Furthermore, she had to seek the legal services of Dewey & LeBoeuf who are acting pro bono to make sure her legal, human and civil rights will not be further violated.

After more gender tests and speculation over her eligibility to compete as a woman, the IAAF finally cleared her in July 2010 to return to competition as a woman and has yet to release their findings from her gender tests. Since her medical records are private, it may never be known if much of the embarrassment and scrutiny Semenya was subjected to was all for nothing, but one would suspect that if the IAAF had enough evidence to suggest Semenya wasn’t “technically” a woman, they would have released it.

I have to imagine that this young lady, at the time this all began she was only 18, suffered imaginable psychological damages having the world not only question who she was as a person, but to be examined like an animal with the world waiting for the results.

Since returning to international racing Semenya hasn’t been her self. During her 800 race in the London Olympics she got silver after trailing most of the race and only running hard towards the end to secure a second place finish. Many commentators, sport analyst and spectators commented that Semenya seemed to lose the race on purpose, saying that she didn’t seem tired after the race, much like she had in an earlier international race where she got a silver. If this is true, it is sad, but can you see why someone who previously fell under world scrutiny after finishing first, would purposely opt out of being in that position again.

In an interview after the race, Semenya stated that her head just wasn’t into it. This is the Olympics, what professional athlete’s head is not into their Olympic event? Maybe one who had her human rights violated and was kept out of competition while the IAAF tried to verify her gender which indeed caused an untold amount of psychological damage.

In that same interview with NBC, Semenya asked the interviewer, Mary Carillo how she would feel if she was subjected to the same scrutiny while the world watched through a microscope and the interviewer had no response. Semenya stated “you might even think about taking a suicide” which to me suggests at some point, Semenya did indeed think about committing suicide.  I am so glad that she was strong enough, confident enough and resilient enough to overcome that destructive and irreversible thought. Now if only her psychological damages can be healed enough where she can feel free to race at her best and win without fear of once against being cast into the world spotlight for anything other than being one of the best women 800 meters runners ever.

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