As a South African I am immensely proud of Caster Semenya but I’m also immensely proud of her as a fellow woman and as a fellow human being.
The world has preoccupied itself with scrutinising Caster’s femininity, questioning whether she is female or not, asking whether it is fair that she competes against other women and ostracising her for her natural attributes – attributes that have been refined, trained, worked, and sweated for to get them in the condition they are in. She wasn’t born with a strong body; she had to train and work hard for it.
All this fanfare fails to take into regard a very important fact: despite her “unfair advantage,” Caster is not the world record holder for the women’s 800m; Caster ranks 20th in the world according to a list of all-time women’s best performances in the 800m race listed on Track and Field All-Time Performances. The world record was set by Jarmila Kratochvílová, a Czech runner who set the current world record in1983 when she ran 800m in 1:53:28. Google a picture of her: it will be enlightening.
This question of “the other” and difference is seemingly more directed at women. Never does one hear about investigations into fluctuating testosterone levels between men. Male athletes with higher-than-normal testosterone levels aren’t subjected to the kind of medical examinations Caster was subjected to. It’s not an issue for smaller male athletes to accept that “stronger” male athletes have, firstly, the natural ability, and, secondly, trained hard to be where they are. Society, it seems, cannot grant this same acknowledgement to female athletes.
A recent article in The Guardian made a very pertinent point. The author argued that the athletes that lined up to run the 800m did so facing an unfair advantage. That unfair advantage, however, was not that they were running against Caster Semenya; it was that the athletes were competing on an uneven playing field. The athletes present came from countries that spent different amounts of money and resources on their athletes. Athletes from developed, richer countries are endowed with resources and benefits not available to those from developing, smaller countries. Things such as the best trainers, tracks to practice on, and state of the art psychological and nutritional enhancements are widely available to richer countries of the Global North whilst athletes hailing from the Global South often do not have comparable resources at their disposal. This is evident when one considers the countries that walked away with the most medals: the United States, China, Great Britain, Russia, and Germany. These real inequalities being faced by athletes, not physical in nature, but rather structural, aren’t being talked about.
Apart from people vowing to continue the fight to implement policies to force athletes such as Caster to take drugs to reduce testosterone levels, what I found more disgraceful is the conduct displayed by some of the athletes that competed with Caster, most notably through the type of comments they made. Africa and Africans are so often marginalised. Why, please, why, when Africans achieve greatness are they not allowed to own it? Why should it be about your perceived “injustices?” Caster was flanked by Francine Niyonsaba, Burundi’s first female Olympic medallist (who incidentally won the second Olympic medal for her country – ever) and Kenya’s Margaret Wambiu. These women worked hard for their placings. The athletes not on that podium were in no way entitled to those positions, even though they might have felt they were. For once, your position in the world need not be reflected in your athletic ranking. Accept it and give credit where credit is due and then consider what real injustices are.
Caster has faced an arduous battle of cruel and hostile attacks for years now. Concerns were even raised as to her safety during the Games. She has had to run two races: one on the track and one that has been fuelled by an international campaign that has tried to ban her from competing in the sport that she loves and enjoys with her entire being. In the end, she won both. Her victory is great but the world still has a long race to run in terms of discriminating on the grounds of sex, race, and simply looking different.