No matter who wins the women’s 800 meters at the track and field world championships, which started Friday morning, she won’t be able to call herself the best in the world. That’s Caster Semenya, who won’t be there. In fact, the winner won’t even be able to definitively call herself the second- or third-best on the planet, because Francine Niyonsaba and Margaret Wambui aren’t in Doha either.
Semenya, Niyonsaba and Wambui swept the medals at the Olympic 800 in 2016, and went 1-2-4 at the last worlds in 2017. All three women are choosing not to compete instead of being treated under track’s barbaric new policy requiring women to lower their testosterone levels to a certain point. They’re banned from their jobs because their employers do not approve of their bodies.
Semenya had won 30 straight races before the ban took effect. Her 1:54.98 season best is nearly three full seconds faster than anyone else in the world has run this year.
The trio has been missing from track and field’s circuit all summer, but this is the one track meet that counts. They won't be there and there is no groundswell to change that fact. In a sport with a seemingly limitless capacity for public embarrassment, the regressive power brokers who make these decisions have realized that a little shamelessness is all it takes to get what you want. What they want, and what they are getting, is the ability to ban women from women's races.
Friday morning’s heats saw no protests, and Monday night’s final won’t either. (Lynsey Sharp, one of Semenya’s most vocal critics, was kind enough to bomb out in solidarity, running 2:03 and failing to qualify for the semis.)
Semenya fought (and is still fighting) the policy in court, and Niyonsaba and Wambui have said in recent months that they fall under the policy as well. Niyonsaba said “For me, it’s about discrimination. It doesn’t make sense,” in April. Wambui only disclosed her situation this week.
"I was told you are one of those affected by high testosterone, so that's how my season ended," Wambui told the Olympic Channel. "After that, I didn't know what I was meant to train for, because if I have been stopped from running by the IAAF there was no need to train anymore. That was my career, my talent. That's what was feeding me. That's how I was earning a living. And all of a sudden, this was blocked. It affected me a lot. I didn't want to train or do anything… I became a victim.”
No one knows that victimization better than Semenya, because track has done this before, forcing women to suppress their natural chemistry earlier in the decade. Semenya went along with it at the time. She says that the medication she was forced to take caused “weight gain, constant nausea, and impaired mental focus.” And she was, relatively, one of the lucky ones.
Before the 2012 Olympics, the IAAF discovered two athletes with naturally high testosterone levels, and essentially forced them to have invasive surgeries. Those athletes spoke to German outlet ARD on Friday. One is Ugandan runner Annet Negesa, and the other remained anonymous.
“They told me it was a kind of injection, they were pulling out my testosterone, but that's not what they did, when I woke up in the morning, I had cuts," Negesa said. The other athlete had it even worse: “I've often thought of killing myself. They stole my life, my existence... I wished that I had died in their hands then, because they would have been held responsible and punished."
Stephane Bermon, who recommended the surgeries for the two women, is still the head of the Health and Science Department for the IAAF, track’s international governing body.
This is the world that the IAAF would prefer to live in. They’d rather sloppily apply brutal regulations than let women like Semenya win. Two Kenyans made it as far as their national trials before refusing a testosterone test and essentially having their medical condition outed last week.
If American Ajee Wilson — who lives and trains in Philadelphia and has said that Semenya should be free to run — wins a world title on Monday night, it should be an iconic, history-making moment. Instead, the winner of that race will be getting a participation trophy and an asterisk.