clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile
Close-in black and white of Caster Semenya’s face wearing a stern, determined expression.

Filed under:

Caster Semenya and the cruel history of contested black femininity

World Athletics’ regulations targeting Caster Semenya are rooted in a long legacy of black bodies being held to white standards.

If you buy something from an SB Nation link, Vox Media may earn a commission. See our ethics statement.

In the 10 years since Caster Semenya won the 2009 World Championships at just 18 years old, the sports world has whittled her story down to one thing: her body.

Narrow hips. Wide shoulders. Pronounced jawline. Manly.

Based on the tones of disgust used to discuss her physicality, one might think that Semeya is the only runner to ever possess a body that so greatly differed from everyone else’s in the field. It seems the sports world has forgotten the peculiarities of Ira Murchison’s stocky, 5’4 frame, which earned him both the nickname “Human Sputnik” and an Olympic gold medal in the 4x100. Or that world record-holder Usain Bolt was taller with longer legs than any of his competitors.

Unlike those men, Semenya’s body is often deemed unwanted and out of place, most notoriously by her sport’s governing body. Throughout her career, World Athletics, formerly the International Association of Athletics Federations, has insisted she undergo intrusive testing and hormone regulation, and ultimately banned her from competition after instituting rule changes that seemingly targeted her in 2019.

But Semenya is not alone. Burundian runner Francine Niyonsaba, one of Semenya’s competitors in the 800-meter run, has since revealed she is one of a growing number of female athletes, mostly from the Global South, whose hyperandrogenism puts them directly in the crosshairs of World Athletics’ regulations. Former top junior-athlete Annet Negesa, an intersex runner from Uganda, recently disclosed that she underwent invasive surgery at the behest of World Athletics doctors to ensure she could continue competing. Complications from the procedure left her damaged both mentally and physically.

Underlying this harsh, discriminatory treatment is not simply an adherence to faulty biological metrics or antiquated, binary conceptions of gender, though these aspects have undoubtedly played a role. In fact, “sex verification” practices originated in the 1950s out of the as yet unfounded suspicion that some countries were allowing men to compete disguised as women, and involved little more than asking athletes to remove their undergarments. (Some of the athletes subjected to this scrutiny, like 1932 Olympic gold medalist Stella Walsh, were discovered to have genetic conditions resembling intersex characteristics.)

Semenya’s treatment is rooted in something far more disturbing. As early as the 16th century, European explorers who made their way to the African continent began remarking on the anatomical features of the populations they encountered. To the Europeans, the dark skin, strong builds, and wide lips and noses they encountered resembled those of apes, so much so that they began perpetuating the idea that Africans regularly copulated with monkeys. Over time, such beliefs took on a more gendered tone, with comparisons made between African and European women that not only promoted arbitrary markers of racial difference and inferiority, but also justified the exclusion of African women from the category of “woman” altogether.

World Athletics remains committed to a centuries-old, white supremacist notion that defines “womanhood” in terms of the white, cisgendered female body, rendering everyone else, especially women of African descent, socially unacceptable abberations.

World Athletics describes its mission as fostering “athletic excellence” and enhancing sport to “offer new and exciting prospects for athletes.” Yet it has historically done so by enabling vile attitudes towards black women and the bodies they inhabit.

In 1897, just 15 years before World Athletics was founded, British missionary Sir Albert Cook, a medical doctor by training, wrote broadly and unabashedly about his ethically dubious biopsies of women in present-day Uganda, remarking:

“Who has not been struck by the extraordinary narrowness of the Negroid hip? Viewed behind in the erect position at the level of hips the female Negroid body is narrow and round as compared with the “broad beam” of the average European woman, and when the dried pelvises of each are placed alongside each other the explanation is obvious, the Muganda’s bone looks like that of a child in size and in the fineness of its structure.... The negroid races have a shape of pelvis which is intermediate between the protomorphean races and those of the higher civilised types.... The brim, as in the apes, is long­oval in shape.”

It is difficult to overemphasize how critical Cook’s now-disproven studies were in the development of racialized ideas around femaleness and womanhood, and ultimately the dehumanization of black women’s bodies. He would become a two-time president of the British Medical Association and was knighted by way of King George V after his studies of African women’s anatomy became popular. Cook exemplified to the colonizing world the “knowledge” that could be seized upon through engagement with the African “other.”

Before Cook, Sarah Baartman, more commonly known by her derogatory nickname “The Hottentot Venus,” encompassed Western society’s fixation on black women’s bodies. Captured and enslaved in what is now South Africa (Semenya’s home country), Baartman was brought to Europe in 1810 and exhibited in circuses and public squares until her death, when scientists assessed and dissected her elongated labia. That work was promoted as more evidence that black women’s so-called deficiencies made them less “womanly” than their white counterparts.

The impact of such ideas can still be seen today within the medical community through widespread diagnoses of “labial hypertrophy,” a medical term for an elongated labia, despite the fact it is not a major (nor, for the most part, even minor) health concern. The rise of labiaplasties — a procedure that shortens and reduces the overall length and size of the labia — reifies the idea that the legitimacy of female genitalia should be defined by its distance from the physiology of the black, female body.

And while some might dismiss the relevance of these concepts today, chalking them up to a long-ago historical era of “overt” racism, they nonetheless helped Europeans institutionalize racism in areas like sports. As a result, the medical knowledge that informs society and World Athletics’ standard of womanhood is deeply rooted in racism, to the extent that black women like Semenya, Niyonsaba, and Negesa never really stood a chance.

Side profile photo of Francine Niyonsaba running Getty Images
Annet Negesa leading a pack of international runners. AFP via Getty Images

Take sex hormones, for example. The idea that there are racial differences in testosterone and estrogen levels, particularly between black and white groups, is widely held yet highly controversial. The belief that black women are more masculine than just about every other race of women is rooted in the 17th and 18th centuries, and based on the notion that people of African descent are animalistic and aggressive. Fast forward to 1995, when popular psychologist J. Philippe Rushton argued that black people are less intelligent and more impulsive than white and Asian people, in large part due to their heightened levels of testosterone. Though Rushton’s work has been subjected to criticism over the years, his book Race, Evolution, and Behavior is in its third edition. Rushton himself was elected to the prestigious Canadian Psychological Association, and received a one-time Guggenheim fellowship. Scientists have spent the last few decades refuting Rushton’s claims, and ironically fanning the flames of racial pseudoscience.

Some studies suggest that among older women in the U.S., black women possess lower levels of estradiol, a form of the female sex hormone estrogen, than white women. On the surface, this may appear to be the source of World Athletic’s highly racialized policies. But it is important to note few studies have assessed racialized hormone disparities among women of different races, and even fewer studies with results that can actually be replicated. More common, as one might imagine, are studies that explore racial differences in sex hormones among men. Some show, contrary to popular belief, testosterone levels are quite similar between black and white men, while free estradiol levels are much higher in black men than men of other races. But even those results have been questioned by endocrinologists, biologists, and doctors due to conflicting studies in the field.

World Athletics’ relative lack of interest in variance in men’s bodies illustrates, by contrast, just how disproportionately unfair it has acted towards women. In his 1996 book Darwin’s Athletes, historian John Hoberman argues this discrepancy is due to a fixation on “black athletic aptitude” that goes back centuries. In 1851, physician Samuel Cartwright wrote that, “It is not only in the skin that a difference of color exists between the negro and the white man, but in the membranes, the muscles, the tendons, and in all the fluids and secretions.” Cartwright’s work, which Hoberman claims was read widely by slaveholders, gave (pseudo-) scientific, biological justification for maintaining racial hierarchy and slavery, even as moral opposition grew in other parts of the United States. Implicit in Cartwright’s work was the idea that black men’s physicality is acceptable only when it can be manipulated for profit.

Today, we see Cartwright’s legacy in sports. Exceptional male bodies, often characterized by great strength and size, often inspire awe, and not ire, because for the last century sports institutions have forged and refined mechanisms to make money off of them. Strong women’s bodies, however, haven’t yet been nearly as profitable, and thus have been much more easily derided.

From an interracial lens, black athletes are only considered worthy of wealth once they’ve proven their value beyond any reasonable standard. Until then, they are denied the same fame, wealth, and recognition that white competitors more easily receive. In their analysis of the rise of Kenyan athletes in the middle and long distance winners’ circle, John Bale and Joe Sang show that, when confronted with the domination of African-American sprinters from the top of the 20th century onward, white sprinters from Europe quietly retreated to the longer distances while sports writers claimed black athletes lacked the stamina and strategic acumen to succeed in those races. Further, when black athletes began performing better than whites, race officials would either give white athletes another opportunity to run, or disqualify the faster times run by their black counterparts. Such was the case when African runners Humphrey Khosi and Bennett Makgamathe bested white runners in a 1962 meet held in Mozambique, but were denied victory by officials.

Now, World Athletics has established “development centres” throughout Africa and many other parts of the Global South, hoping to recruit and cultivate the very talent it once sought to restrict from success in competition. Some argue that regional development centres are actually a way to export these athletes to the West so that they can compete for nations like Britain and France. And still, these centres cater to the cultivation of male athletes, leaving women behind even in countries with more liberal attitudes towards women’s participation in sports.

World Athletics simply sees little use in acknowledging and developing female talent, particularly black female talent in the Global South. As exemplifiers of a particular strain of racialized thinking, those women, to them, are not “real women.” And when World Athletics refuses to elevate the athletic prowess of a black woman, within a body that defies centuries of white supremacist, colonial, gender-essentialist myths, it chooses, instead, to humiliate her on every level.

In this era of sports and protest, perhaps a movement of solidarity from other runners could rise up, forcing World Athletics to reevaluate its stance. But track and field is still an intense, cutthroat competition. Many contestants instead see a chance to fill a void atop the podium, or worse, proliferate their own racism without fear of backlash. British middle-distance runner Jemma Simpson described racing with Semenya as “literally running against a man.” Australian Madeleine Pape recently defended Semenya, and expressed regret at having joined “the chorus of voices condemning her performance as ‘unfair’.” Black female athletes from sub-Saharan Africa occupy a position of heightened marginality; the chances of them receiving widespread support were miniscule from the jump. Ironically as some of the world’s fastest runners, they haven’t been able to garner the momentum needed to create a different outcome.

And yet, these women shouldn’t need to advocate for themselves. As society continues to confront the racial legacies of social institutions in other ways, sports organizations like World Athletics have a clear opportunity to address the harm done as a result of the implementation of racist, sexist ideas. No more hiding behind biased science, doctors, and metrics. Semenya, Niyonsaba, Negesa, and other African female athletes with hyperandrogenism need not alter or manipulate themselves to fit ideals of womanhood that were constructed explicitly around their exclusion. Their bodies are simply not the problem.

They never were.