Did Semenya Lose to Avoid Gender Questions?

Cameron Spencer/Getty Images
Cameron Spencer/Getty Images

In 2009, when South African runner Caster Semenya won the world title, the victory, combined with what many viewed to be masculine physical traits, led to an inquiry by her country's governing body into whether she was actually a woman. That's why, Slate reports, when she came in second in the 800-meter at the London 2012 Olympics — despite a strong performance and the appearance of leftover energy toward the end — some wondered whether she'd settled for the silver on purpose.


Semenya explained, "The body was not really on fire today." But is it possible that she gave up the gold, and the gender scrutiny that would have accompanied it, on purpose?

After the race, track and field aficionados questioned her tactics. The BBC's David Ornstein said it appeared that Semenya "had more left in the tank." His story quoted BBC commentator Kelly Holmes, who won this event in the 2004 Olympics, suggesting that Semenya hadn't made her best effort: "She looked very strong, she didn't look like she went up a gear, she wasn't grimacing at all. I don't know if her head was in it, when she crossed the line she didn't look affected." Meanwhile, Sports Illustrated senior writer Tim Layden tweeted that Semenya "seemed oddly disengaged most of race and not tired at end."

In her post-race interview, Semenya said, "The body was not really on fire today." But the spring in her step at the end of the race — Layden said she "seemed aerobically relaxed two steps past finish line" — led others to speculate that she had pulled a badminton move and tanked the race. Why would someone intentionally perform below their standard in the biggest race in four years? One South African track and field observer suggested that it might be "scandal avoidance" — her 2009 triumph brought such unpleasant consequences that she'd just as soon avoid further scrutiny, and an Olympic silver medal brings considerably less attention than the gold.

This response was predictable. In fact, Sports Illustrated's David Epstein called it in a piece published days before the final: "If Semenya wins the gold, she is likely to be accused of having an unfair advantage. If she runs poorly, she is likely to be accused of sandbagging the race so as not to be accused of having an unfair advantage."

Read more at Slate.