The IAAF wants to introduce new rules, that will apply to women who take part in track events from 400 meters. Caster Semenya's superlative talent is unquestionable. Perhaps that is the problem, writes Redi Tlhabi.
As the world gathered in Monaco last week to celebrate the crème de la crème of global sport at the Laureus World Sports Awards, another global star started the next phase of the gruelling battle for her identity, dignity and possibly her life.
Lawyers for the International Association of Athletics Federation (IAAF) have argued that the 28-year-old world and Olympic champion, Caster Semenya, is a "biological male" as well as a classified female. Spectators have also joined in, posting the vilest insults and verbal abuse.
Their tone is no longer that of people who genuinely want to understand the genetic and social issues on the table. The names they call her leave you in no doubt that their prism is populated with racism, homophobia and misogyny.
Semenya has been fighting a decade long battle that is no longer just about naturally occurring hormones. It is about her freedom to live and excel in the body in which she was born. It is about her identity as a woman being questioned. It is about who gets to tell women, that they are not women?
Imagine being an athlete competing on the international platform, setting the tarmac on fire every time you compete. Crowds roar and cheer you on from inside the stadium and others from the comfort of their homes. The applause is deafening. But for every cheer your victory solicits, there is a loud groan from those who have appointed themselves arbiters of who is and isn't a woman.
Semenya's superlative talent is unquestionable. Perhaps that is the problem. She is not allowed to be THAT talented. Semenya owns the running track. There is no question about that. But now, she cannot own her own body. She cannot let it do what it was born to do and is facing the possibility of giving her body up to the male dominated IAAF. Where do men get the nerve to…? Never mind, I know the answer.
The IAAF wants to introduce new rules, that will apply to women who take part in track events from 400 meters. They are to keep their testosterone levels below a prescribed amount prior to competing. Prescribed by whom? Furthermore, the international athletics body has arrogantly conferred unto itself the authority to determine what constitutes "normal female". It is outrageous. It is insulting. It is crass. Even their vocabulary is violent and discriminatory.
Her lawyers are emphatic though: she is "unquestionably a woman" and is fighting "for her right to run free".
Semenya's lawyers are arguing that her genetic variations are what sport is about and that hers should not be treated differently than other genetic variations that are celebrated in sport. It is absurd, that the athletics body wants us to believe that a naturally occurring variation confers unfair advantage and requires artificial intervention. There is a name for that. It is doping. And we all know how that goes down!
All Caster wants is to run naturally, the way she was born. In a recent interview, shortly after she had decided to challenge the proposed rules, she told me, "The IAAF has pissed me off and I want to make this right."
Well, my sense is that Caster is not the only one who is pissed off. For many years South Africans have rallied behind her, with a few exceptions. Even when politicians in the ANC and the disgraced former athletics chief Leonard Chuene, tried to divide the nation, eroding all the goodwill that South Africans were directing at Caster, ingratiating themselves to her by positioning themselves as her only protectors, citizens of this country continued to celebrate and fight for her in many different ways. The powerful people made political speeches about Caster, claiming nobody, besides them, was on her side. That was ten years ago. Time has proven that they were wrong.
South Africans in all their diversity have been and still are behind Caster. The outpouring of outrage and empathy when it was revealed that she had undergone quite intrusive tests to determine if she was a girl or not, initiated decisive action against Chuene (there were other governance transgressions that led to his dismissal).
This matter has hung like an albatross around Semenya's neck. In some quarters, she is spoken of as though she is a cheat, when all she is doing is using her talent to inspire so many – and leave many others behind!
It all boils down to whether a woman, with naturally high levels of testosterone has the right to be a woman. The answer should be YES! It all boils down to whether a woman with naturally high levels of the hormone should be forced to take drugs to compete. The answer should be NO!
- Redi Tlhabi is an award-winning author, journalist and talkshow host.
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