The Race to Be MyselfSetting: South Africa
Genres: Personal Memoirs
Published on October 2023
Format: eBook Source: Library
World champion runner Caster Semenya offers an empowering account of her extraordinary life and career, and her trailblazing battle to compete on her own terms.
Banned from the sport she loved because she was labelled 'different', Olympic and World Champion Caster Semenya is finally ready to share the vivid and blisteringly honest story of how the world came to know her name. Thrust into the spotlight after winning the 2009 World Championships Caster Semenya quickly became the centre of a debate which still continues today about gender in sports, and the right to compete as you are.
Told with blistering candour and captivating speed, The Race To Be Myself is a journey through innocence, ambition, defiance, and acceptance. From her rural beginnings running in the dust, to crushing her opponents on the track. To the falsehoods spread about her name, and the many trials she has been forced to endure publicly and privately. This is Caster's time to set the record straight and share her story of how she became a defiant champion.
Throughout it all Caster has found triumph in her strong will, her community and her family. Caster's story is our story, and testimony to anyone forced to stop doing what they love.
I’ve read a lot about Caster Semenya recently because I’ve been doing some reading on issues in women’s running. When I saw that she had a memoir out, I jumped at the chance to see what she had to say. She hasn’t talked a lot to the press in the past so I was excited to see her take on all the controversy swirling around her career.
If you aren’t familiar with her, Caster was a great 800 meter runner from South Africa. When she started winning internationally, accusations were made about her gender because of her masculine appearance and her speed. She was forced to undergo surprise gender testing twice. That’s how she found out that she was born with a Difference of Sexual Development. She knew that she didn’t menstruate or develop breasts like other girls but she didn’t have a penis so she was always accepted as a girl in her hometown. Now the world press was hunting for proof that she wasn’t female.
“I can still hear my mother wailing desperately as she tried to explain to perfect strangers that I was born a girl, and that I was her little girl, and why was all of this happening?”
She was forced to take hormones to lower her natural level of testosterone. She had horrible side effects from the medication. It did slow her down but she was still competitive. When that requirement was lifted after a court case from another athlete, she came back into her top form. That’s when the international athletic association that governs track and field had several trials that led to them banning women with DSD from competing in the 400m, 800m, and 1500m events – coincidentally the events she excelled at – unless they dropped their testosterone to very low levels. When she decided to change her focus and train for the 5000 m instead, the ban was extended to all race distances.
The IAAF’s position was that women with high testosterone levels had an unfair advantage equal to the advantage that male athletes had over female athletes. On its face, this is ridiculous. We are not men. I am a great runner, and I train with men, some of whom I can maybe give a hard time to on my best day, just like any other elite female athlete could, but I have never been able to even approach an elite male runner’s times. Likewise, there are plenty of men with normal “male” testosterone levels whose only hope of beating a female athlete with “female” levels is in their dreams.
I loved the way she told her story. I got the feeling that she has been holding all of this in for so long that she wasn’t holding back on the page.
Doped athletes like Savinova had been winning medals and prizes, yet despite the IAAF’s talk about cleaning the sport of illegal drugs, it was people like me and Dutee whose natural bodies were seen as abnormal and were being targeted and shamed out of the sport.
Yet they thought nothing of cheering on the seeming inevitability of wins by genetically gifted athletes like Usain Bolt, who boasted millions more fast-twitch muscle fibers and a stride that was several inches longer than his peers. No one suggested Michael Phelps’s dominance was unfair and he should take medication so he produces just as much lactic acid as his competitors or have surgery to fix his hypermobile joints.
I loved this section about commentators who accused her of being male because running didn’t look hard enough for her. Her race style was to hang back and then have a fast kick at the end of races. They would imply that was possible because she was a man who was holding back to stay with the pack of women and then letting loose the “natural male speed” to pass them all.
I remember the comments the announcers made that day— it was more of the same. They said things like “Looks like two different races out there” and “No effort at all from Semenya,” “Caster just cruises past these women.” I was used to it. My effort didn’t seem like an effort. Such is my talent, I suppose. I make something that is torture look easy.
Look, it may not be “nice” or “proper” to say this, but I think some female athletes are accustomed to flopping around on the track because that’s what the powers-that-be like to see us do. I’m not just talking about running here, I’m talking about everything. And the truth is that seeing people hurt in sports makes some people happy. What those people want to see is the struggle, they want vivid images of humanity pushed beyond its limits. For women, especially, we’re supposed to be so weak that even when we accomplish something physically difficult, we must fall and gasp and flop around.
I remember reading how women were barred from running in the early days of organized sports because men thought their body parts would fall out and that it was “unseemly” for women to sweat in public. Well, look closely at professional women’s races. Most of us run, cross the line, congratulate each other, and go on with the rest of our business. We may take a few deep breaths, maybe we’re dealing with a shin splint or a stitch or some injury, but we’re fine. If you’re an elite athlete and you really can’t breathe and you fall down when you’re done with a race, train harder.
She is very adamant that there is nothing “wrong” with her body. She grew up in an environment that was very accepting of gender expression differences. She was a girl. She had to do more chores because that’s what girls do in the family. She wasn’t seen as different than her sisters.
By the time I became a professional runner, I had already been through years of comments, whether good or bad, about my looks. The thing was I came from a place where people did not question my gender.
I wasn’t the only girl who was “boyish” in my village or the surroundings villages. Girls who preferred to wear trousers or who played with boys weren’t considered abominations. It really was not a big fucking deal. These girls would grow out of it and get married and have kids with a guy or not. That’s life. And it was no one’s business but theirs. There are many ways to be a girl.
There were journalists who asked why my parents didn’t realize something was wrong, why they didn’t take me straight to a hospital when they saw I wasn’t developing in the same way other girls were. I hear that in the Western world, a girl like me would have been diagnosed and “treated” from birth or at least as puberty began. This didn’t happen to me because no one thought there was anything to treat. We noticed I was different, but different didn’t mean wrong.
People continued to be convinced that she was either trans or a man in disguise despite the fact that she showered in the open with other athletes as she says so they could get a good look.
My mother and father were freely talking to journalists because there was nothing to hide—they gave birth to and raised a girl. They were humble, rural people and couldn’t understand how it was possible for anyone to question their child’s gender. Their view of the whole thing was that the White people had gone crazy and that we were not going to listen to anything they were saying. That was it.
We didn’t have running water or electricity in my village. Where would people like us get the money to change genders?
In South Africa she was a national hero. Her fans supported her. Politicians came to side. She decided to fight the bans on her competing to help herself but also to help other DSD women who were going through the same things.
I received calls and messages from a few athletes, and each interaction was heartbreaking. These girls were not in a good place mentally. Most came from places and families that would not support them, communities where they would be shunned, possibly even hurt. Running had not just been their joy but also a way to get an education. Running was their only source of income, and most were already financially supporting their families. Their sports federations weren’t going to stand up for them—with words or anything else.
Just after the book was finished she won a lawsuit in Switzerland declaring that her human rights had been violated over the gender testing, leaking her results to the press, and being forced to take hormones. It doesn’t allow her to compete but it does make people acknowledge that what they did to her was wrong.
I think this quote should be required reading for anyone who is convinced that women’s sports are in imminent threat from trans and DSD athletes.
Despite my fast times, I hadn’t even broken the world record. I am the fourth fastest 800-m runner in the history of the sport. And as far as I know, not one of the women who have run the 800 meter faster than me had my condition.
Yeah, she’s one of the greatest of all times. But not the best. She didn’t blow everyone else away. She points out other runners who went crying to the press about how unfair it was when she beat them, yet never mentioned a word to the press when they beat her in the same year.
This book was compelling and heartbreaking. I’d love to see everyone who has had something to say about her participation in races over the years have to read it.