Thoughts on Caster Semenya controversy from a South African journalist.
It was simple. She was going to go to the 2009 World Championships in Athletics, run the 800 meter races and hopefully bring a gold medal or two to South Africa. She did it with incredible ease. The controversy hit just before the Championship. She was too muscular, too strong, her dramatic improvement and record-breaking performance was out of what was considered normal. Was she really a girl?
As the controversy and questions about her gender escalated, Caster Semenya ran and won race after race with the confidence of a girl who was certain she had nothing to hide. She knew she was a girl, so when she won by gigantic margins, she dusted off her shoulders with that signature swagger of hers.
The International Association of Athletics Federation (IAAF) decided to test Semenya three weeks before the World Championships in Berlin, to verify whether or not she was indeed female after she made dramatic improvements in her performance. These tests were done by an endocrinologist, a gynaecologist and a specialist in internal medicine.
In the meantime, Semenya still ran her races in Berlin, broke previously held records by South African runners Zelda Pretorius and Zola Budd, and took home the gold. She flew back home to her delighted, but very angry parents. Her father, an ordinary, soft-spoken man, could not understand why people would be so malicious and put his teenage daughter through such horrifying, invasive and humiliating tests to prove what was obvious, what he had known since his daughter’s birth – she was a girl. He wanted her home and safe right away. He told journalists that no amount of running was worth this kind of treatment. Semenya’s mother, also interviewed, blamed white people. “They are jealous”, she said as she danced with pride for her daughter.
Semenya received overwhelming support in South Africa. Within hours of being formed on Facebook, a group in support of her, swelled to twenty thousand members. People took time off to go and meet her at the airport, and gave her the sort of welcome reserved for pop stars and icons like Nelson Mandela. Politicians, including President Jacob Zuma, met with her. She had a hero’s welcome and was paraded around the streets of her small hometown in a late model convertible. She was glad to be home, and supportive South Africans tried to shield her from what they felt was unfair scrutiny and speculation. Activists, analysts and critics rallied to her side.
The media had a feeding frenzy. A local tabloid magazine, YOU, gave Semenya a glamour makeover to make her look more feminine for an undisclosed amount of money negotiated by the South African Athletics Association, who now wanted to manage her career and “prevent her from being exploited.” She was also interviewed on glamour TV magazine, Top Billing. More was to follow.
A few days ago, an Australian reporter leaked the test results that found that Caster Semenya was in fact a “hermaphrodite” or intersex. It was reported that she had female genitals externally, and a womb, but instead of ovaries on the inside, she had testes. Semenya had not yet been informed of the results when the story hit the news stands. Once again, the story drew outrage. Politicians, among them, former first lady Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, were outraged. They pledged to get to the bottom of the matter, that they would support Semenya one hundred percent. The South African Athletics Federation also added its voice to the outrage at the results.
Traumatised, Semenya pulled out of a race she was meant to run and went into hiding. She spoke to no one. Concerns for her rose as people remembered a similar case of an Asian athlete who took her life once she was found to be intersex and stripped of her medals. Semenya was quickly offered trauma counselling.
Shortly after that report was leaked Wilfred Daniels, the manager of middle distance runners, resigned from his position and began to tell all. On 17 September, Williams revealed that the South African Athletics Federation did in fact know that Semenya was intersex before she went to Berlin. He told the media that Semenya told him they had performed more than the usual urine and blood tests. They had taken pictures of her genitals as well as performed other tests, which she now understood to be gender testing prior to her departure for the World Championships in Berlin. They then, knowing the results, asked that her coach withdraw her from the race. He insisted on letting her run.
Accusations and blame continue to fly back and forth between organizations and individuals. A large cross-section of the public now asks how possible it is to be neither completely male nor completely female. While debate goes on around her, Caster Semenya stays away from the glare of the media, her simple teenage life forever changed, and publicly so. As outraged former world athletics champion Carl Lewis said of the matter, “To put it out in front of the world like that, I am very disappointed in [the South African Athletics Federation] because I feel that it is unfair to her… Now, for the rest of her life she’ll be marked as ‘the one’.”