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Would soccer accept Caster Semenya?

Dominant 800-metre runner Caster Semenya has mentioned the possibility of playing soccer when her track career ends. But despite her physical advantages, a move to the pitch could prove challenging for the controversial runner.

Dominant 800-metre runner could find sport less inviting

Due in part to her naturally high levels of testosterone, Caster Semenya has become virtually unbeatable in the women's 800 metres. (Stu Forster/Getty Images)

After winning gold in Rio, 800-metre runner Caster Semenya is preparing to take her next step — which may or may not be on the track. 

In a recent interview with the BBC, Semenya pondered her future.

"I want to be a coach — that's the main goal," she said. "When I'm done with athletics I might also be playing soccer."

Semenya, 26, has become a controversial figure in track and field due to her naturally high levels of testosterone — a condition known as hyperandrogenism. Because she produces much more testosterone than most females, Semenya is able to build greater muscle mass and, in turn, run faster. As a result, she has become virtually unbeatable on the track.

Despite her physical advantages, though, a move to the soccer pitch could prove challenging for Semenya. Unlike track and field, the soccer world has yet to engage in a larger conversation over gender and biological sex.

'I still love soccer'

Semenya's love of soccer began at the age of four, while growing up in South Africa. In fact, it was only when a career in track seemed possible that she decided to stop playing.

But even now, after winning 800m medals at both London 2012 and Rio 2016, her passion for the game remains. 
  
"I still love [soccer] and I'm still good. I sometimes take my boots and join my brother when he's playing and I can still make them suffer," she told the BBC.

"Maybe my last Olympics I'll be playing soccer…we'll see."

But it's hard to imagine FIFA, at least at the moment, embracing Semenya. After all, it was her breakout performance at the 2009 track and field world championships — at which a fellow competitor accused her of being a man — that inspired the creation of gender verification regulations by soccer's world governing body.

Those regulations state, in part, that "androgenic hormones have [sufficient] performance-enhancing effects, particularly on strength, power and speed [to warrant exclusion]."

As recently as the 2015 Women's World Cup, FIFA required every national team to "ensure the correct gender of all players by actively investigating any perceived deviation in secondary sex characteristics." 

While FIFA says these gender verification efforts are about ensuring "a level playing field," they've come at a cost to some female players.  

"They asked me to take all my clothes off in front of officials," Genoveva Anonma, the former captain of Equatorial Guinea, told the BBC after being accused of being a man by competitors in 2008.

"I was really upset, my morale was low and I was crying. It was totally humiliating," Anonma said.

Outside the norm

While these "nude parades" — as sex tests used to be called — have been replaced by less-degrading chromosome and testosterone examinations, the idea of gender verification speaks to a larger issue in society.

With muscular arms, slender hips and an angular face, the one opponent Semenya has never been able to outrun is the Western world's perception of gender. 

For Roger Pielke Jr., head of the Sports Governance Center at the University of Colorado, it's these preconceived notions, more than biology, that explain why Caster has been targeted. 

"Elite athletics is really about the celebration of the 'freaks of nature' — people who can do things that the rest of us can't," says Pielke. "We don't penalize athletes for unique or rare genetic conditions except in the case where it violates gender norms."

Indeed, few seem to question the gender of elite swimmers who possess long trunks and short legs, or NBA players with their great height and wingspans.

It's also worth noting that Semenya wasn't the only standout female performer in Rio. Gymnast Simone Biles and swimmer Katie Ledecky were no less dominant, but they better fit the Western gender norm than does Semenya.

Still, whether we continue to see Semenya on the track or she moves to the pitch, one thing is for sure — she'll let her feet, as usual, do the talking.

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