South Africa: Our August Cover Star, Caster Semenya: The Athlete in the Fight of Her Life

Caster Semenya raises a fist as her name is announced over the loudspeaker: The South African runner stands in lane eight on a track in Doha, Qatar, at a Diamond League competition held this past May. She looks pissed.

As per usual, the crowd in the stands cheers loudly for her, remarkably more than almost all the other women in the surrounding lanes. As the runners take their marks, Semenya focuses on the starting line before her. When the race starts, she and Benin’s Noélie Yarigo take off, their strides in sync with each other as they cut across the outside lanes to form a pack with the other runners. Yarigo’s ponytail flaps against her shoulders as she holds on to her lead with Semenya. Yarigo pulls ahead, her stride long and steady. At first, it’s shocking — could she really break Semenya’s winning streak? — until Yarigo looks over her left shoulder to see Semenya right on her heels. As the women hit the midpoint of the race, Yarigo’s stride changes, her body working overtime to keep a narrowed lead. Soon, she eases back and veers off the track, clearing the way for Semenya to take over. With the lead, Semenya doesn’t pull back — but instead digs in. With each step Semenya takes, Francine Niyonsaba of Burundi falls farther and farther behind. Semenya could ease up and still win. She doesn’t. She kicks into high gear, besting Niyonsaba by nearly 20 meters when she crosses the finish line.

Once the race is over, Semenya takes her congratulatory flower bouquet and launches it into the crowd. She breathes hard, but it appears she’s not even winded. The crowd is just as electrified as she is, shouting and cheering at her. The other women, her competitors, are slumped over or lying on the ground at the finish line.

The crowd goes wild, as it normally does now for Semenya, but not just for the typical reasons. The right reasons would be: Semenya won, and her athletic ability is practically a miracle to witness. Instead, this decisive win came with a dark cloud. At the time, it appeared this would be the last 800-meter race Semenya would ever run under the International Association of Athletics Federation (IAAF), which is track and field’s global governing body. The organization, just two days prior, announced it would force her to reduce the levels of testosterone naturally produced in her body if she wanted to continue running her best event.

Caster Semenya, arguably one of the greatest runners in the world, was being effectively banned from competing.

Greater Than the Greats

Running through fields, kicking a ball between friends for hours, and playing pickup baseball games until the sun goes down, day in and day out — this was the freedom of a rural childhood for Mokgadi Caster Semenya. Being a girl in Fairlie, a remote village in Limpopo, South Africa meant a life of chores, like fetching water and cleaning the house. But games with the local boys were her retreat from housework; her escape from being taunted for her tomboyish ways was running as far as her legs could take her.

“When I do sports is when I feel happy. I feel free,” she says to Out on the set of our photo shoot on a Saturday afternoon in Seattle.  Read more via Out