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Courage and questions: Olympian with local ties reflects on Caster Semenya

Three years after the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Olympic athlete Angela Whyte said she still remembers the controversy surrounding Caster Semenya.

While Whyte and her teammates had heard the rumors that the two-time Olympic track and field champion Semenya had higher than normal testosterone, they had mostly tried to stay focused on doing the best in their own events.

Whyte, a three-time Olympian, four-time All-American and five-time Big West Conference track and field champion at University of Idaho, imagines that Semenya was trying to do the same thing at that time, but assumes that must have been a much more difficult thing for her.

“It’s a very difficult situation when someone tells you can’t do something you love because of who you are,” Whyte said.

The debate surrounding Semenya – and other women like her – gained new life Wednesday when the International Association of Athletics Federations ruled that female athletes with certain levels of testosterone needed to lower those levels to compete.

Whyte, who was a Washington State University assistant coach for track and field in 2015, said she admired Semenya’s courage in challenging the rule in 2009 instead of accepting it.

“I think it’s forcing us to have a conversation that needs to be had, because there isn’t a binary, there’s so much variation between all women and all men,” Whyte said. “We wouldn’t be having this conversation without her.”

Whyte said that while she doesn’t have the scientific background to fully understand the issue, what she does understand is “(Semenya) is a person who’s been put into a very difficult situation, who loves to participate in her sport and I admire her strength and courage to fight.”

Toby Schwarz, Whitworth University track and field head coach, said the issue comes down to how you view the separation of men’s and women’s athletics.

“It comes back to philosophy,” Schwarz said. “ … part of sports is trying to make as even a playing field as possible, meaning that people don’t have such advantages where the competition isn’t viable. … This whole conversation revolves around what is equitable competition.”

Schwarz also said there are many more factors besides testosterone that make an athlete an athlete.

Nishant Shahani, Washington State University Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies associate professor, said this was about policing women’s bodies, particularly black women’s bodies.

“It has to do with the fact that women’s athletic achievements have to ‘explained,’ and undermined,” Shahani said. “Think about Serena Williams. She is labeled a cheat and a doper because of her muscular body that is seen as appropriate only for male athletes.

“If you look at the trolls on Twitter, they’re constantly talking about ‘Oh, Serena is really a man.’ The idea that women can be athletic and gifted is supposedly so out of the realm of possibility that her excellence has to be explained through the discourse of unfair advantage.”

Shahani said race is an important component of Semenya’s treatment as well.

“There is a very long history of black women’s bodies being dissected, being pathologized,” Shahani said. “You have to go way back to the 19th century to think about how scientific racism does this. The black woman’s body is hyper masculine as not being ‘the same’‘normal’ as white femininity. I think that also plays into the discourse around Caster Semenya’s body.”

Shahani also compared Semenya’s case with another elite athlete: Michael Phelps. Shahani pointed out the mechanics of Phelps’ body – including the fact that he produces half the amount of lactic acid as normal people – boost his performance.

“This enables him to back-to-back perform in swimming events without being exhausted in a way an ordinary mortal or even another really good swimmer wouldn’t be able to do,” Shahani said. “This is what makes him the gifted athlete that he is, but again I don’t see any discourse around, ‘Oh, but Michael Phelps has this unfair advantage that his body doesn’t produce lactic acid.’ ”

Schwarz also mentioned many athletes have physical advantages without dealing with backlash.

In this photo taken Saturday April 27, 2019, South Africa's athlete Caster Semenya competes in an event at a meeting in Johannesburg.  Semenya lost her Court of Arbitration for Sport appeal Wednesday May 1, 2019, against rules designed to decrease naturally high testosterone levels in some female runners. (Roger Sedres / Associated Press)
In this photo taken Saturday April 27, 2019, South Africa’s athlete Caster Semenya competes in an event at a meeting in Johannesburg. Semenya lost her Court of Arbitration for Sport appeal Wednesday May 1, 2019, against rules designed to decrease naturally high testosterone levels in some female runners. (Roger Sedres / Associated Press)

“She’s chosen to do track and field and she’s benefiting from it, but it’s the same as someone who’s benefited genetically from having stronger calves or taller height or something like that,” Schwarz said. “So that’s how I don’t see it as being that big of a deal. Yeah, she beats everybody, well so did Michael Johnson for years, and so does Usain Bolt.”

In a statement, Semenya said she would not allow this ruling to hold her back.

“For a decade, the IAAF has tried to slow me down, but this has actually made me stronger,” Semenya said. “The decision of the CAS will not hold me back. I will once again rise above and continue to inspire young women and athletes in South Africa and around the world.”

Whyte said her viewpoints are her own and do not necessarily reflect those of her teammates or Athletics Canada.

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