Sifiso Skenjana: Why Semenya is more than a hero – and the IAAF is messing with SA's economy


Sport has long been known and understood to have both positive social impact as well as economic spillovers for the countries involved. Sports players have therefore been some of the most recognisable national ambassadors.

Most people would know which countries Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods, Serena Williams, Jonah Lomu, Zola Budd, Sachin Tendulkar, Roger Federer, Lionel Messi, Caster Semenya, Percy Tau, et cetera are from.

Semenya, specifically, has been an incredibly influential ambassador for South Africa, the LGBTQI community, as well as women’s sport, on a national, continental and global level.

She has risen above all attempts to oppress her talent on the running track. She most recently made it onto the 2019 Time 100 Most Influential People list, alongside President Cyril Ramaphosa.

Legends like Semenya are important to the economy for several reasons, including but not limited to 1) national sport representation and economic business development 2) sport as a career, and 3) advocacy for the reduction in gender pay gap.

The decision, therefore, by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) to continue abusing and discriminating against Caster Semenya is not only hurtful and destructive to her, but also to the country and its economic growth imperatives.

National sport representation & economic development

A 2007 European Commission Paper found that sport generated €407bn in 2004. South Africa has hosted three World Cups: the 1995 IRB Rugby, the 2003 ICC Cricket World Cup, the 2010 FIFA Soccer World Cup, and the 1996 and 2013 Africa Cup of Nations. This is while Durban recently lost its bid to host the 2022 Olympics.

Events of this size not only contribute to the economy through tourism, infrastructure, and tickets and merchandise sales, but also by elevating the domestic sporting economy. The world's most renowned scouts attend the events, and they get to participate in some local-is-lekker talent. (I am pretty sure Trevor Noah was scouted during a world cup. Comedy should become a sport. Lest I digress….)

To illustrate, the 1964 Tokyo Olympic Games saw Japan become a technology leader, on the back of the investments they made leading up to the Olympics, estimated to have spent  $3bn, according to S&P – roughly the size of their entire GDP at the time.

Locally, the 1995 IRB Rugby World Cup was phase 1 of post-apartheid economic building. It was the first major sporting event to be hosted in the country post-apartheid. Spronk and Fourie (2010) observed a 54% increase in Australian tourists to South Africa, and 112% from New Zealand in the month the world cup was hosted.

South Africa going on to win the competition against the indominable All Blacks gave the country new economic clout when it came to sports.

Advocacy in women’s sports

Japan in the 1960 Olympics only took home four gold medals, yet when they hosted in 1964, they took 16 on the back of material investment into Olympic sports, leading up to 1964 Tokyo Olympics.

What this illustrates is the impact overall performance an investment into sport can bring. Caster Semenya is a local and global hero for athletics and the sporting fraternity at large. Her rise to stardom is that of humble beginnings and fortitude to rise above all adversity, yet her success continues to come with bittersweet feelings, as women continue to fight for fairness and equality in sport.

A Gender Balance in Global Sport 2016 report found that the 2014 FIFA Men’s World Cup had total prize money of US $576m, while the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup had total prize money of US $15m. The difference is not only stark, but embarrassing. The World Economic forum finds that the sports with the biggest gender pay gap were basketball, cricket, golf and soccer.

If not for Semenya, we must reject the IAAF and its abuse of human rights and promotion of gender discrimination. We would do so for the sake of our own economy, understanding that a continuation of such actions by sporting bodies will have negative implications of the economic value our domestic sports can derive.

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