While the majority of the country was swept up in election-fever, South African sports fans were outraged by the decision made by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) and the Court of Arbitration on Wednesday 1 May, stating that athletes competing in the 800m sprints must be within a certain testosterone level to compete in women’s events. This directly affected Caster Semenya, who has naturally-elevated testosterone levels.
The decision, which only affected the events that Semenya competes in, means that Semenya would have to medically reduce the amount of testosterone in her body in order to continue competing. While controversial, the decision has united the South African online community, and garnered a tremendous amount of support for Semenya.
Minister of Sport and Recreation, Tokozile Xasa, was one of the first to react to the news, stating that she was disappointed in the decision, and that she and Athletics South Africa (ASA) will study the judgment in order to decide on the way forward. Xasa also urged the ASA, as a member of the IAAF, to challenge the regulations from within the organisation, and support Semenya.
South African Twitter had also started a wave of support for the athletics star, with the hashtags #handsoffCaster and #IstandwithSemenya trending massively. South Africans from all different backgrounds, creeds and political leanings were united in support of Semenya, with many calling for further appeals to the decision. Others have called out the IAAF for continuing to keep the current women’s 800m record holder, Jarmila Kratochvilova’s record, after photos of her record-setting finish drew striking resemblance to Semenya’s muscled physique. The Daily Sun even published a “spot the difference” photo in which Semenya and Kratochvilova appear almost identical in physique.
This unification of South African sports fans is striking, particularly during the time of national elections which usually separates South Africans along political lines. It shows that the South African populace is willing to set aside differences when it comes to supporting national treasures like talented athletes.
Since the final ruling on the new regulations, Semenya competed in her final race on Friday 3 May, crossing over the finish line in an easy first place. After her convincing victory, Semenya was calm and defiant, stating that she will continue to train, and do her best in the event in which she made her name. She was adamant that she would not take any medication that would alter her testosterone levels.
The IAAF have since stated that Semenya, who is not a transgender athlete and identifies as a woman, may compete in the men’s 800m event should she wish to continue to compete.