Olympic runner Caster Semenya reveals she had panic attacks and found herself in a ‘dark’ situation when she was forced to take the pill to suppress her high testosterone levels so she could compete with women
Olympic gold medalist Caster Semenya has revealed the physical and emotional turmoil she experienced after having to take the contraceptive pill so she could compete with other women.
The South African runner, 32, who won Olympic gold in the 800 meters in 2012 and 2016, was legally identified as female at birth but has a condition that causes her body to naturally produce higher levels of testosterone than women without the condition.
In 2018, rules introduced by World Athletics stipulated that Semenya and other athletes with differences in sexual development (DSD) had to take hormone-suppressing drugs in order to compete at distances between 400 meters and a mile – for Semenya, this meant taking the birth control pill to suppress testosterone .
Speaking on BBC Radio 4 Woman’s Hour, the decorated athlete said the pill gave her ‘panic attacks’, caused her severe stress and made her ‘want to throw up every day’ during the time she was on the medication – and she stressed that she poses ‘no threat’ to other female athletes.
She also told host Emma Barnett that she doesn’t want the two children she shares with wife Violet Raseboya to take up athletics later in life because of the experience she has had – and will instead encourage them to take up other sports .
Caster Semenya, who had to take the pill to suppress her testosterone levels to compete with women in track events, says the medication made her extremely unwell
During her career, her personal medical records were leaked after she had to take a test to prove she was a biological female. The results showed that she was born without ovaries or uterus and had internal testicles. Her testosterone level was three times higher than what was considered ‘normal’ for a woman at the time.
As she releases her memoir The Race to be Myself, she has reflected on the strict conditions imposed on her to take part, which required her to take a test to prove she was a woman, and later take steps to reduce testosterone in to suppress her body.
Semenya recalled taking the gender recognition test when she was 18 years old, shortly before winning a gold medal at the World Championships in Berlin, Germany.
“It was a surprise to me when I found out this was a gender test,” she said. “I understood it was a doping test.”
When the doctor told her she was taking a gender test, Semenya recalled feeling like she had “nothing to hide” and allowed the test to go ahead.
“I know I’m a woman,” she said.
Semenya, who hails from South Africa, revealed she doesn’t want the children she shares with wife Violet Raseboya to take up athletics
The test revealed that Semenya’s reproductive organs were different from those of most women – something the athlete was previously unaware of. The test results were eventually leaked and made public without her consent.
She revealed that she processed the information “years” later and avoided the news for several years so she could continue to focus on running.
Referring to the leak, Semenya said: “It is a violation, but I have no control over it. In the end it’s there and it did me a favor because I had to learn through it, there are people who had to learn through it.
“Now there are people who know that there are women with differences of opinion.”
She added, “Women with differences; they are not threats.”
After the results of her test revealed Semenya’s elevated testosterone levels, she came to an agreement with World Athletics (formerly the IAAF) to take medication to change her hormones and lower the testosterone in her body.
Describing how the hormones affected her, Semenya recalled, “I took it up out of desperation to get back into the running space.”
She added: “It made me sick. I lived under stress. Every day you are not happy, you live in the dark.
‘You have pain in your stomach, you have panic attacks, you feel nauseous, you want to throw up every day.’
Semenya described her experience as “hell” and said she ended up “loathing herself” and losing her self-esteem.
‘You don’t sleep at night, you always think: ‘why am I doing this?’ she said.
Despite a debate that has surrounded Semenya throughout her career as she fights to compete against women, the runner insisted her higher testosterone levels have not put her at an advantage over her peers.
“There is no unfair advantage,” she said.
Barnett read a statement from World Athletics that pointed to “more than a decade of research” among athletes with differences in sexual development that found higher testosterone levels “provide an unfair advantage in the female category.”
When discussing the debate over transgender women competing in the female sporting categories, Semenya declined to comment, arguing that she is not transgender and therefore cannot be included on the subject.
The statement added that World Athletics guidelines are “necessary, reasonable and proportionate” to protect women’s sport.
Elsewhere in the interview, Semenya opened up about her life since she stopped competing, adding that she still runs every day, but mainly works with young children as a coach – and hopes the ‘nonsense’ surrounding her career doesn’t affect other young children will happen. athletes.
She also discussed the two children she shares with her wife, fellow athlete Violet Raseboya, adding that she doesn’t want them to follow their mother’s path.
“They’re not going to do athletics,” she said, but suggested they try tennis, golf or swimming.
“I need to get them away from the nonsense that women are treated like they are animals,” she said.