August 28, 2016

Why we should Embrace Caster Semenya.

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At six foot five, Usain Bolt has a much longer stride than the average male sprinter. This seems a bit unfair to me.

So I’m thinking that what we should do is chop a couple of inches off his legs.

Too harsh? Okay, well, what if we hobble him? Or sedate him? That should make him slower, right? Make the races more fair?

And what about that Simone Biles? She is totally taking advantage of being so unusually short and powerful. It seems pretty obvious to me, and that can’t be right or fair, can it? I mean I’m five foot eight and my abs have abandoned me, but surely we should stretch her or something to level the playing field if I’m ever going to have a chance at winning Olympic Gold in gymnastics?

Meanwhile, there is South African runner, Caster Semenya. Apparently, she’s got testosterone levels in her blood that give her at least a three percent advantage over the other female athletes. Three percent? In an 800 metre race, that gives her a four second head-start over her rivals—that’s hardly fair is it? Surely, if we’re going to chop off Usain’s legs, and stretch out Simone, we should definitely operate on Caster, or at least medicate her. You know, to make it more fair…

Because using a naturally given gift for an advantage is outrageous, right?

I’m pretty sure that I don’t need to point out that the answer is no.

Obviously it is never acceptable for athletes to artificially enhance their performance, which is why the Russian team competing in the Olympics found themselves so significantly depleted. But the advantage that Caster Semenya has over her competitors is no more cheating than the relative statures of these other gold-grabbing athletes. So why is she under such scrutiny? And why is the rhetoric around her story so vitriolic?

The behaviour of Semenya’s fellow athletes at the end of the 800 metre final last week stank of the kind of jealously aimed at the smart girl/ the pretty girl/ the talented girl in a story that has played out in every school playground since the dawn of time. The mean girls exclude the threat to their perilous position at the top of the tree. They bad-mouth her and try to bring her down because she has shaken their branches and reminded them that perhaps they ain’t all that, after all.

Never, however, has this unedifying scene been played out under such a magnifying glass as it was last week when Semenya competed, amidst a cacophony of controversy, in the Olympic 800 metre final.

The photo taken at the end of the race shows Melissa Bishop of Canada and Lynsey Sharp of Great Britain coldly ignoring the out-stretched hand of Caster Semenya. Granted, we should be careful when drawing conclusions from snapshots, but their behaviour, especially Sharp’s, after the race did nothing to redeem their seeming lack of sportsmanship here. They should be embarrassed for excluding instead of congratulating her. And for what? Being better than they are?

To complain that racing against Semenya is somehow unfair, especially when you came sixth after all, is like me opening the pages of a fashion magazine and complaining that the waif-like models, wafting around exotic locations in threads worth more than my car, should not be allowed to use the height, metabolism and symmetry that nature has gifted them to earn their wedge. Anyone sound in mind should quite rightly dismiss me as an envy-consumed hater incapable of loving the body she is in, perhaps at the same time as casting a withering glance in my direction as I main-line the Jaffa-cakes.

So why should whining athletes be treated any differently when they complain that racing against Semenya is “hard?”

Equally bonkers is the attribution of Semenya’s success solely to the fact that her body produces more testosterone than the average female’s. For years she has trained her mind and body to run at great speed, with huge stamina, and to disregard this is narrow and self-serving.

It also seems fair to suggest that Semenya’s successful bid for gold, amidst a vitriolic media storm that has disregarded her basic rights to privacy, has demonstrated a level of grit and determination which should in fact be admired. Imagine having the validity of your status as an athlete, a gold medal winner, and a woman, questioned to the degree that Semenya’s has been. Then imagine going out under the gaze of that world’s eye to compete, knowing that there are people to your left and right who don’t want you there. More than that, who think you don’t deserve to be there.

If there were such a thing as a gold medal for mental strength, Semenya could surely add this to her haul.

And what is it we are really scrutinising here? Semenya has been cleared of cheating. She has not artificially enhanced her performance as an athlete—she has simply taken advantage of a gift nature (or God, if it suits you) has given her. In that case, perhaps what is really fanning the flames of the inferno surrounding her is that here is a woman who is simply not feminine enough.

She has a strong jaw and forehead, a deep voice, narrow hips and a muscular frame. If you listen to some corners of the media, she has female genitalia but does not have any working reproductive organs. So let’s sweep aside the questions about how fair it is that such personal, possibly untrue, details are now bar-room banter. Let’s disregard her innocence, her (disadvantaged) upbringing and her identification as a woman. Here is a female who is not soft enough, not slow enough. Not woman enough.

Frustratingly, we once again find ourselves judging and measuring a woman not by her abilities, but by her appearance.

Despite Semenya proving her innocence, many of us remain discomforted by her presence on the track with the women who don’t defy the gender norms. The women who are softer, rounder, and far closer in appearance to the average woman on the street are simply easier to identify with and accept.

But this is the odd thing. Since when has underlining just how average the human body can be, been the aim of the Olympics? Sport at a global level is about extra-ordinary feats performed by extra-ordinary people who make the average person stop their daily lives to glory in the wonder that is the human body. A human body that, were it average, simply could not keep up.

It might be fair to argue that perhaps Semenya would not have won Gold without the extra testosterone, but this is a moot point—we will never know, and even Science is still deciding whether this makes any difference at all. But surely we can all agree on one thing: we don’t want our athletes to be “normal” or “ordinary.” So it is time to leave Semenya alone to be exactly what we want from our Olympians: extra-ordinary.


Author: Nicola Washington

Image: The Guardian on Twitter

Editor: Khara-Jade Warren


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