As It Happens

Transgender runner respects Caster Semenya, but says she should lower testosterone to compete with women

Joanna Harper, a transgender runner and IOC consultant, says the South African athlete, who is poised to win gold in the women's 800 metres, has an unfair advantage because of her naturally high testosterone levels.
South Africa's Caster Semenya looks on after competing in the Women's 800m Round 1 in Rio on August 17, 2016. (Olivier Morin/AFP/Getty Images)

Caster Semenya easily captured a spot in the women's 800 metre semifinals on Wednesday in Rio. And, if the South African runner keeps up the pace she's been setting, she'll likely capture a gold medal on Saturday — and may even break a world record.

She'll not only have to take on the other runners in the field. She'll have to face down those who say she shouldn't be in the race at all because her naturally high levels of testosterone give her an unfair advantage.

(L-R) Shelayna Oskan-Clarke of Great Britain, Ajee Wilson of the United States and Caster Semenya of South Africa compete in the Women's 800m - Round 1 heats in Rio. (Ian Walton/Getty Images)

But she appears to be undaunted. She told the BBC before the Games, "How can you be scared? You want to be a winner . . . I cannot stop because of people saying, 'No, she looks like a man.'"

​Joanna Harper is the first transgender woman to consult with the International Olympic Committee on gender. She thinks Semenya has an unfair edge. And she wants to see testosterone limits on those competing in women's events — a provision a court suspended for two years — reinstated.

When people find out that I'm transgender, they have the same idea, that I'm a man invading women's sports.- Joanna Harper, competitive runner- Joanna Harper, competitive runner

"While it's not a perfect solution, I think that it's the least unfair solution," Harper tells As It Happens guest host Laura Lynch. 

"How is it that you define men and women? We need to look in a complex way at that. I think that for sport, and for sport only, that that dividing line should be a testosterone-based one."

In 2011, the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) introduced guidelines that required some athletes to take medication to suppress testosterone levels. This included Semenya whose times slowed.  But in 2014, the IAAF decision was reversed after Indian athlete Dutee Chand took her case to the Court of Arbitration for Sport. Since then, Semenya's times have improved.

Masters runner Joanna Harper takes a morning jog in Portland, Oregon in 2006. (Tom Hauck/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Harper says she's seen the effects of testosterone on her own performance. When she started taking testosterone suppressants, within nine months, she was running 12 per cent slower. 

"I lost my entire male advantage," she says

But she still understands that the scrutiny and criticism Semenya has faced can't be easy.

"[I have an] enormous amount of sympathy for Ms. Semenya. I have faced many of the same criticisms that she has," Harper says. "When people find out that I'm transgender, they have the same idea, that I'm a man invading women's sports. And that's how many people feel about Caster."

Harper says that, if Semenya wins gold on Saturday, it will be polarizing.

"There will be many, many casual observers who will question the fairness of what she is doing. There are also a number of people who will rush to Semenya defence."

Many of those standing firmly in Semenya's camp are from South Africa, where the hastag #HandsOffCaster generated a chorus of support:

The successful appeal at the Court of Arbitration for Sport means the IAAF will have to present better evidence that increased testosterone improves female performance. The IAAF has until July 2017.

For more on this story, listen to our full interview with ​Joanna Harper. You can follow all the Olympic action here