The Current

How a former rival had a change of heart about Caster Semenya's right to compete

Olympic champion Caster Semenya lost her appeal against the International Association of Athletics Federations' testosterone rules. Many have embraced the federation's decision, saying it will level the playing field. Critics, however, argue the ruling is discriminatory, paternalistic and hypocritical.

Olympic champion Caster Semenya lost the landmark legal case against IAAF over her testosterone levels

Madeleine Pape of Victoria, Australia, lost to Caster Semenya in the 2009 World Athletics Championships. At the time, Pape was resentful of Semenya's win. (Mark Nolan/Getty Images)

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It's been 10 years since Madeleine Pape lost to Caster Semenya at the 2009 World Athletics Championships. She, like many of the other competitors at the time, resented Semenya's win.

"At the time I was very quick to join other people around me in saying that, sure, Semenya had an unfair advantage," Pape told Anna Maria Tremonti on The Current.

In the decade since that race, Pape conducted research into the social fallout from Semenya's win. She's since had a shift in perspective and become a fierce advocate for the South African Olympic gold-medalist.

Semenya lost her appeal Wednesday against rules by the International Association of Athletics Federations designed to decrease naturally high testosterone levels in some female runners.

Tremonti spoke with Australia's Pape to discuss her change of heart and why she stands firmly against the Court of Arbitration for Sport's ruling. Here is part of their conversation.

What were your feelings at the time [in 2009]?

At the time I was very quick to join other people around me in saying that, sure, Semenya had an unfair advantage.

I mean on the hand, there weren't any other points of view being presented at that time. I was very much hearing only one opinion on this topic so I certainly wasn't being challenged to think differently or critically about where my own views were coming from.

And also, another part of this, I think in my case, was that it was somewhat self-serving to be able to accuse her of having an unfair advantage, since I had been very disappointed with my own performance at those championships.

In some of the media coverage of the final in particular, there were some competitors from the women's 800-metre final that sort of spoke out. And I think that points to, I guess, sort of the lack of sensitivity about this topic at the time.

You know, we really didn't have the language or the sort of framework to make sense of what was happening and be able to talk in a more respectful way about the issue.

How have your views about that race and about Ms. Semenya changed?

I've been on a real journey, I guess, since 2009. I wasn't able to continue running because of an injury and ended up coming to the United States to do my PhD in sociology.

It was through that experience that, quite unexpectedly actually, I started to be exposed to the very vast literature that's been written about this topic by advocates of women's sport and I decided to delve into the scientific and the ethical complexities and begin to question my own point of view.

So as it stands now ... I now don't feel that there's any place for these kinds of rules in women's sport. And I think it's actually in the interests of women athletes to not be trying to impede the performances of superstars like Caster Semenya.

IAAF president Sebastian Coe leaves the Court of Arbitration for Sport after a hearing of South Africa's two-time Olympic 800-metre champion runner Caster Semenya. Coe said on Thursday that the IAAF will apply its testosterone regulations to the 1,500-metre event. (Laurent Gillieron/The Associated Press)

It's interesting because she's not alone. India's Dutee Chand also faced these restrictions and actually won and got them lifted for a while, am I right?

Yeah, that's right. So that was in 2015. Dutee Chan, who's a 100-metre runner, took an appeal against the previous set of rules that were quite similar to the current set, to the Court of Arbitration for Sport, and I suppose that the fact that she was victorious in that instance kind of points to the sort of scientific challenges here of actually trying to tease out exactly to what extent testosterone is impacting athletic performance.

There's science to be considered on both sides of that debate. And I suppose that's the debate that the CAS has been trying to right wade through.

Athletic performance is very complicated. It's impacted by a whole range of different factors and testosterone is just one of those factors. So to be able to come up with clear measures of exactly how much it's affecting athletic ability is a very big challenge.

Caster Semenya lost her appeal Wednesday against IAAF testosterone rules. (File/The Associated Press)

So how surprised are you by the CAS upholding the rules in the case of Caster Semenya?

I wouldn't say I was surprised. I was more disappointed, I think.

I think since 2009, the sport of track and field has come a long way and that is largely on the back of Caster Semenya because her journey has challenged us to think differently about the complexity of sex and testosterone.

So I think given the outpouring of support that we've seen for Semenya — not just recently, but over the last couple of years — indicates a sport that is in a good position to be able to take a different road when it comes to regulating women with high testosterone.


To discuss the ruling against Semenya and what it means for the sports landscape, Tremonti spoke to:

  • Madeleine Pape, former competitor against Semenya and current PhD student in sociology at University of Wisconsin Madison.
  • Gerald Imray, sports reporter for the Associated Press.
  • Robert Blecker, professor of law at New York Law School.

Click 'listen' near the top of this page to hear the full conversation.


Written by Émilie Quesnel with files from CBC Sports. Produced by Alison Masemann, Howard Goldenthal and Cinar Kiper. 

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