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Olympic Runner Who Once Competed Against Caster Semenya Weighs In On Testosterone Ruling


Caster Semenya won what may be her last 800-meter race this past Friday in Doha. Her dominance in the event may be at an end because of new regulations that come into effect Wednesday. The new rules ban women like Semenya, with naturally occurring high levels of testosterone, from running certain events in the women's competition unless they take medicine to reduce those levels. When asked whether she would submit to the new regulations, Semenya replied, hell no.

Madeleine Pape was an Olympic runner for Australia who once competed against Semenya. She's now a Ph.D. candidate in sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. And she told us about when she competed against Semenya in 2009 at the IAAF World Championships in Berlin.

MADELEINE PAPE: I lost to Semenya, amongst other people in the heats. And I was, after that, very quick to join the chorus of voices around me that were beginning to accuse Semenya of having an unfair advantage. And that really reached fever points on the evening of the final, when the IAAF, who's our governing body in track and field, announced publicly that they were going to be conducting investigations into Semenya's biological sex. So that really set the tone for how people then proceeded to talk about her.

And for me, you know, I guess I wasn't really encountering any alternative points of view. That was the single point of view that was being voiced around me at the time. So I certainly fell in the camp of jumping on the bandwagon and repeating the things that were being said around me.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And how did you come to change your mind?

PAPE: Yeah, that was a - it was quite a long journey, actually. About a year after those World Championships, I sustained a career-ending injury, and I decided to move to the United States to start a Ph.D. in sociology.

And I happened to chance upon this topic and the very vast literature that's been written about it from the point of view of women's sports advocates who have examined at length the very many scientific and ethical dilemmas that surround the exclusion of women who have high testosterone.

Initially, I was very confronted by this discovery. And it really was over time that my own view shifted. And I would say that something that was really critical in that process was meeting women who had high testosterone, becoming friends with women with high testosterone and thinking about how they were personally impacted by these kinds of practices in sport.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: This is a story, of course, about regulating women with naturally high testosterone levels. But it's also important to remember that this is also a story about one particular athlete and one particular woman, Caster Semenya. There is the issue of her sex in this, but there's also the issue of her race in this. Do you think that plays a factor in your view?

PAPE: To be honest, I think those concerns are fair. I mean, I think there are questions to be answered about why Caster Semenya, in particular, has attracted this level of scrutiny and this level of determination on the part of the IAAF to exclude her from competing because when we compare her margin over her competitors to other successful athletes of this era, they enjoyed greater margins over their competitors. And yet, for some reason, we fixated on Caster Semenya as the athlete whose margin of victory has become problematic for us.

So I think it's a complicated issue, but I think it is very fair to be asking why women of color from the global south and from sub-Saharan Africa, in particular, are overrepresented amongst the women who've been accused of having an unfair advantage.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And there is, of course, the issue of her sexuality. Semenya is a lesbian.

PAPE: You know, when we think about why Semenya, and why have her performances, in particular, raised the ire of a number of people, you have to wonder whether sexuality plays into it. I mean, she's openly a lesbian. She is - I would describe her as nonconforming in terms of her gender presentation.

And I think the sport of track and field, as much as I love this sport, and, you know, it's the No. 1 love in my life, I think we have a little way to go still when it comes to accepting both diverse gender identities, and also abandoning our ideas about heterosexuality.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The words fair and unfair get thrown around a lot in this conversation. What do people actually mean when they call something fair?

PAPE: I think really what underlies a lot of people's motivations in this, you know, no matter which point of view you adhere to, people really want to see women's sport get stronger and be valued.

And so what I look to for inspiration, really, on this topic is the leadership that we've seen from women's sports organizations, like the Women's Sports Foundation here in the U.S., also the International Working Group on Women and Sport, activists like Billie Jean King, who have spoken out in support of Caster Semenya and who see Semenya's presence as a good thing for women's sport.

So I follow their lead in saying that, you know, women's sport will benefit from Semenya being a part of it, and we have room to include her here.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That was Madeleine Pape. She was an Olympic runner for Australia who once competed against Caster Semenya. Thank you so very much.

PAPE: Thanks so much for having me

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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