by Bose Maposa and Siphokazi Magadla
For any track and field athlete, the World Championships are the main event, the center stage to prove their worth in the world league and claim their place amongst the greatest. Qualifying to attend these games is an honor in itself; winning a medal a glory; whilst a gold medal is the ultimate dream. One cannot begin to imagine what this could mean for an 18 year old first timer. But for Caster Semenya, the South African teenager who has emerged into the international headlines for breaking the 800m running world record this monumental moment has been overshadowed by the international outcry she has caused. The Semenya ‘saga’ has forced even those who do not care much for sports to pick sides (with her or the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF)) after she was asked by the athletics body to undergo a gender test.
She has received different names and caused varied reactions, from ‘ Ms/Mr Semenya‘ in an attempt to ridicule her to ‘Yes indeed she is a woman, but maybe an ugly one‘ in attempt to defend her. Some have even swayed from discussing the gold medalist and turned to talking more about the performance of her runner-up in the finals. Some have accused South Africans and other Africans who have come to her defense as blindly nationalistic or as Marx said under the spell of ‘false consciousnesses’. While others maintain that the teenager is innocent until proven guilty, or that she remains sexless until proven otherwise, a game of cat and mouse but with no finish line is in sight. Amongst other things, she has highlighted the prejudices and the ambiguity of the fine line between gender and sexuality, and most importantly those held by the IAAF.
Gender is said to be a social construction while sex is a biological definition. As straightforward as this may seem, it is apparently not that simple. The IAAF asked Semenya to take a gender test, despite the fact that she was born female and raised as a woman (this is according to both her mother and her South African birth certificate), as this does not automatically qualify her to be a female in their standards. Let us note that they do have a set of conditionalities- biological, which determine where one falls in the gender category. Presumably Semenya and her family’s conviction about her feminity are based on those simplistic social characteristics that we demand from everyone primarily the genital location of the person not just appearance. But the IAAF wanted an investigation seeking to go beyond these social requirements, that is to find out if Semenya has unusually high levels of testosterone, even though she is a woman, which give her an additional advantage over other female competitors. Biologically this is plausible of course, but all of us know that the social implications of this question are fundamentally problematic. Apparently for strength and athletics, at the end of the day this social construction of gender and sexuality does not matter and the distinction lie in hormones. Telegraph Sport revealed that she has three times the normal level of testosterone in her body for a female, but comprehensive results will be available after a couple of weeks.
When the races are over, she has to come back and live within her society. The tests prove that she has this hormonal imbalance so does that in our eyes make her a man? In which category would she run in the future? How should she lead her life from now on, as a man or woman? Is she supposed to slip into a dress or stick to just pants? How can we expect the family of a teenager from rural South Africa to have this biological understanding of their daughters’ anatomy, or anyone’s family to conceive of such questions?
Though Athletics South Africa (ASA) has come out to defend her (and even had to go as far as begging her to go to the podium to accept the medal) one cannot help but wonder about the extent of this defense? Could they have done a better job? A BBC article reported that the IAAF claimed that it had required the gender test three weeks prior to the event. Nonetheless, ASA did not oblige. Additionally, though it has not been established just how close the Head Coach of the South African Athletics team was working with Semenya, Telegraph Sport reported that the coach has been in the past involved in scandals regarding hormonal enhancements and doping activities. Was ASA right in hiring someone with such a past?
How can we use Semenya’s personal humiliation to re-negotiate sexuality and gender? French feminist Simone de Beauvoir is famous for having declared “one is not born but becomes a woman.” As an athlete Semenya is expected to be extraordinarily fit, build muscle that goes beyond those of ordinary women. In doing so, did Semenya fail to become the woman that de Beauvoir speaks of? How should women in sports distinguish themselves as athletes but still conform to our societal expectations of womanhood? Let us not also ignore the fact that this issue highlights the fascinating notion of the relation between gender and race; the core of both concepts being power. Is it a coincidence that many of the social networking groups in support of Semenya also see themselves as defending African women in particular, not just women as a group?
With the soccer World Cup in South Africa just around the corner, can South Africa really afford to be consumed by such international headlines? Alternatively, what does the behavior of the IAAF in the handling of this matter say about our international institutions in their ability to do their job without sacrificing the respect and dignity of athletes and humiliate them as it has occurred with Semenya? The power of sports lies in its ability to construct identities, form values, combat developmental challenges and bring about behavioral change. As we look forward to the World Cup, we hope that the event will help construct African identities and positive African images. We hope that Semenya (regardless of the gender results) will be a stifling force to fight gender prejudices within the sports arena and act as an opinion leader to help mitigate these social ambiguities.