Simply put, Caster Semenya is an uncompromising, dominant force. Semenya, a South African middle-distance runner and two-time Olympic gold medalist, has spent the majority of her career as a courageous champion and adversary both on and off the track. What makes her so extraordinary is her undeniable impact in the sport of track and field. In fact, Semenya’s impact has been so great that it could alter not only her own future, but the very future of her sport.
In 2009, an 18-year-old Semenya won her first International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) World Championship gold medal in the 800m. She had experienced previous success, having won the event at the 2008 Commonwealth Youth Games, but the World Championship title was her first major athletic breakthrough. This notoriety was also accompanied by increased scrutiny. She was subjected to invasive exams and sex verification tests. At this time, Semenya was temporarily banned from competing in any female classification on the international level.
Though she was cleared to compete in 2010, her battle had just begun. In 2011, the IAAF passed regulations that placed restrictions on natural testosterone levels in women who wished to compete. Though she was often met with criticism and speculation, Semenya went on to win gold at the 2012 Olympic Games after another World Championship title in 2011. In 2015, after an appeal from Indian sprinter Dutee Chand, the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) suspended the IAAF’s policy for two years and asked that they return within the time frame with evidence supporting the need for such a policy.
Meanwhile, in the face of increased public scrutiny and unfounded discrimination from the IAAF and those surrounding her, Semenya maintained her composure and persevered. She won her second consecutive Olympic gold medal in Rio in 2016 and followed that performance with a gold and a bronze at the 2017 World Championships.
Despite success on the track, Semenya’s adversity off the track would continue. In April 2018, the IAAF published a new policy that some felt specifically targeted Semenya: women competing in only the 400m, 800m and 1500m events would be required to have testosterone levels fall below a certain level in order to keep competing. This policy is set to take effect in November.
Forced into the spotlight, suddenly the spokesperson for a fight that she never asked to be a part of, Semenya embraced the role with dignity and courage. In June, Semenya filed a legal challenge to the IAAF’s newest testosterone policy within the CAS. She continues to compete while fighting for justice and basic human rights in sport. Her advocacy work is not just for herself, but for all athletes, women and men alike. Even as the IAAF attempts to compromise her future and to violate her human rights, remarkably Semenya remains uncompromised; both her personal performance and public persona continue to prevail as steadfast, dominant and truthful.
The Women’s Sports Foundation is proud to honor Semenya with this year’s Wilma Rudolph Courage Award for her persistence in the face of adversity, her success when the odds are against her, and her unwavering belief in herself and her cause. Semenya’s fight for justice and equality embodies the Olympic spirit more than her gold medals ever could. For this athlete, it is not just about winning a race or the pursuit of personal glory, it is about having the courage and conviction to fight for what is right in order to ensure that the next generation of athletes, male and female, will be afforded an equal opportunity to compete and to carry on this legacy of inclusion.
The Wilma Rudolph Courage Award is presented at our Annual Salute to Women in Sports to a female athlete who exhibits extraordinary courage in her athletic performance, demonstrates the ability to overcome adversity, makes significant contributions to sports and serves as an inspiration and role model to those who face challenges, overcomes them and strives for success at all levels. This award was first given in 1996 to Jackie Joyner-Kersee. Learn more here.