Caster Semenya should be a household name. More accurately she should be a household name for her athletic feats. The South African runner is possibly one of the greatest 800-meter runners of this generation. If not for her having yet to break the world record she could be considered the greatest of all time. That is, after all, the beauty (or one of them) of track & field, it deals in absolutes. Time is time. Distance is distance. Speed is speed.
Caster Semenya should be a household name because she is a world class athlete on a historic level. A two-time Olympic gold medalist, three-time world champion, multiple time Diamond League Champion, and seventeen-time national champion. Semenya should be a household name, to be more accurate she should be an American household name, for as much as we covet athleticism. In actuality, she is becoming a household name, but not for her athleticism — or at least not solely because of it. Instead, she has become the focal point of a growing debate within athletics about what defines gender. What is a man? What is a woman? What happens when sports, which has been so intrinsically rooted in the binary, meets a world of growing fluidity?
“I am Mokgadi Caster Semenya. I am a woman and I am fast.”
For as long as Semenya has been on the world track scene her athletic performances and, ultimately, her gender has been called into question. The science (or pseudo-science) of gender and athletics has been well documented, especially in regards to Semenya’s case. Semenya herself has never confirmed anything involving her gender beyond “I am Mokgedi Caster Semenya. I am a woman and I am fast.” Despite this, questions about Semenya’s gender have run amok.
I remember the first time I saw Semenya run. I admittedly, don’t remember the meet. I don’t remember her competition. I remember her. Sinewy and strong with a stride that chews up the track and the competition. She was eighteen and seemed to come from nowhere, which it seems only served to legitimize the questions about her.
I remember early on in Caster Semenya’s professional career watching as the IAAF banned her from competing. Tests had determined that she was a “ hermaphrodite “, a term that by 2009 had largely already fallen out of the lexicon and was essentially a slur. The test allegedly determined that she had no womb, no ovaries, internal testes, and a testosterone level three times that of a “normal” woman. They have literally been trying to get her out of the sport from day one. She was just too good. She was too different.
At the time it felt like commentators and fans made her into a sideshow and embarrassed her for the sake of entertainment. Was Caster a man or a woman? Was she both? Was she neither? It was then, and is now, reminiscent of how exceptional black bodies have been treated with alien curiosity throughout history.
With the IAAF now requiring that Semenya take drugs to lower her testosterone levels in order to continue competing, she has been a touch point for several communities trying to achieve some level of equality in a world that feels, more than ever, very white, very straight, very cisgender, and very patriarchal.
The Extraordinary Black Body
Historically speaking the Semenya controversy is not unusual. The (dis)regard for the physical black form is as old, if not older, than the concept of race itself. From the spectacle of human zoos and Princess Hottentot to Jesse Owens racing horses and the commentary and depiction of Serena Williams’ body there are many links in a long chain of the curiosity and fear white supremacy has exhibited of the black physical form. That fear and curiosity has been the basis of subjugation, discrimination, bias, ridicule, and death.
Does the Semenya issue really have anything to do with race? To answer a question with a question, would we be having this conversation if Semenya were white? Or, at least fell in line with white beauty standards? How much would the IAAF care if Semenya looked like Maria Sharapova? Serena Williams, who has stated that she has been subjected to more than her fair share of drug testing has never been found to have taken any banned substances. Sharapova on the other hand, despite being tennis’ sex symbol and Williams’ arch-rival (despite being regularly and soundly defeated by Williams) is currently the one suspended by the WTA? The fact is Williams doesn’t look like anyone else in tennis. Her natural gifts have made her a champion who has remained competitive for the better part of two decades. The alien perspective of the black body to so many white people makes such feats a matter of skepticism rather than awe.
In the summer of 1988 Jimmy “The Greek” Snyder was fired by CBS for saying that black athletes excelled at sports because of slave breeding. I wasn’t quite eleven yet but even at that age, I was confused by the offense that white people seemed to take at this comment. The black people around me, namely my parents, were largely unperturbed by this statement. Looking back I realize that it wasn’t the (in)accuracy of Snyder’s statements that were the issue. It was the fact that he rang a bell that wasn’t supposed to be rung. That bell was a reminder of the sordid and gruesome chunks of America’s history. More sinfully he did it in the context of sport which, despite all the evidence to the contrary, has long carried the myth of pure meritocracy and equality.
The Disolving Binary
That myth of the meritocracy and a level playing field in sports comes at the expense of creating a culture that lives in the binary and relies on absolutism. Time is time, distance is distance, speed is speed. Men are men and women are women. Sports has never done well with progress. While it has been a reflection of the society that participates in it, sports has done its best to hold on to legacy. Our favorite players are the ones we idolized as children. It is the same way with cultural norms. Gender has been no exception.
My mother, who will be seventy-four this year, loves to tell me about how when she was in high school girls weren’t allowed to play full court basketball our of fear that they would not be able to handle the rigor. it is this reasoning that had men literally trying to pull Katherine Switzer off the race course when she attempted to run the Boston Marathon in 1967. Sport, to a large degree, has had a very narrow view of what being a woman means in regard to ability and appearance. This narrowness becomes apparent when watching fans who, in the midst of debating the femininity of Serena Williams view the acceptance of Semenya’s womanhood as a giant cognitive leap. This is likely the most frustrating part of being a marginalized person. The idea that your identity, your very existence can, and often will be, defined by others with more power (real and perceived).
An Unwitting Activist
For better or worse amidst all of the controversy, Semenya has been very quiet which shouldn’t be a surprise since she has been fairly silent throughout her career. It is clear that Semenya has had no desire to be an activist. Despite this, she has become the latest focal point for a myriad of debates on race and gender. The presumably unwilling protagonist trapped in a story she did not write nor agree to. Caster Semenya was born to run, the rest is static.
What it must be to become more the subject of intellectual gymnastics than the person you are. To be the real-life embodiment of someone else’s philosophical conundrum. Especially when that conundrum is more about their moral discomfort than the labor of having to live within the confines of a morality not of your own making. To have the conditions of your existence speculated on for the sake of confining you to a comfortable (for them) box under the guise of fairness.
Lance Armstrong’s gigantic heart and Michael Phelps’ low lactic acid production have often been referred to as genetic gifts. Their mutations have been deemed lucky, impressive, millennial leaps forward on the evolutionary timeline to be admired. Why is Semenya having elevated testosterone levels any different? They aren’t, except for the fact that there is no evidence that they help her at all. So the question becomes, are we debating unfair advantages? Or, are we in truth debating extraordinary talent being packaged in a personage that makes white power structures supremely uncomfortable?
Armstrong would have been made to take a drug to reduce the efficiency of his heart and Michael Phelps would have been doped with lactic acid. Similarly, if Semenya looked like her “rival” Jemma Simpson, who has openly protested Semenya’s participation in women’s events (Semenya regularly defeats Simpson with ease) it would be a safe bet that this level of scrutiny. For a more even parallel Katie Ledecky, who had one of the most dominant swimming performances in Olympic history has faced none of the scrutiny pointed at Semenya. There comes a point where, in the name of fairness, one has to acknowledge the truth behind these machinations. Semenya is too good and looks too different.
Originally published at https://www.spnwrites.com on May 21, 2019.