Caster Semenya delivers poignant message while savoring gold medal

Jeff Passan
<a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/olympics/rio-2016/a/1103690/" data-ylk="slk:Caster Semenya">Caster Semenya</a> celebrates gold in the women’s 800-meter final. (AP)
Caster Semenya celebrates gold in the women’s 800-meter final. (AP)

RIO DE JANEIRO – After she won an Olympic gold medal Saturday night, Caster Semenya was compared to Nelson Mandela. Semenya smirked at the reporter who did so. Mandela is one of the great men in modern history. Semenya is an 800-meter runner who Saturday won an Olympic gold medal. Beyond their South African roots, they share something else: a fight for what’s fair and what’s right and what a better world might look like.

Madiba, as South Africa fondly refers to Mandela, fought for racial equality. Semenya, still today, is fighting for sports to end their warfare on human biology that she has fought for seven years.

“Sports is meant to unite people, like Madiba said,” Semenya said. “I think that’s what we need to keep doing. It’s just fantastic. I think I make a difference. I mean a lot to my people. I’ve done well. They’re proud of me. That was the main focus. Doing it for my people and the people who support me.”

Those people stuck by a woman whose career sent her into the jaws of stigmatization, questions of her gender, leaked results of the disgraceful sex testing she underwent. She reportedly has been forced to take drugs that changed who she has been since she was born because the ever-shifting definition of womanhood in international sports happened to settle on something that deemed her physiologically unfair.

And after all that, listen to what Caster Semenya thinks of the world, one that so often sought to bring her down.

“It’s all about loving one another,” she said. “It’s not about discriminating against people. It’s not about looking at people how they look, how they speak, how they run. It’s not about being masculine. It’s not about sports. When you walk out of your apartment, you think about performing. You do not think about how your opponent looks like. You just want to do better. So I think the advice to everybody is just go out there and have fun.”

After Caster Semenya won the gold medal in the women’s 800-meter race, she used the platform to espouse something truly in the Olympic spirit. (Getty)
After Caster Semenya won the gold medal in the women’s 800-meter race, she used the platform to espouse something truly in the Olympic spirit. (Getty)

Semenya had plenty of fun Saturday. She laid waste to the field in the women’s 800-meter race at the Rio Games. Some competitors argued she shouldn’t be allowed to compete because of hyperandrogenism, which means Semenya’s body produces an excessive amount of testosterone. Then she ran the race in 1 minute, 55.28 seconds, beat all seven opponents by at least a second and flexed as she crossed the finish line before breaking into a LeBron James-style Silencer.

Which is about right for all she has endured from the people who have called her a man and said she should not be allowed to compete in the Olympics because of a natural advantage. Not only is this argument morally repugnant and ethically flimsy, it runs in direct contrast to the charter that governs the Olympic Movement and makes clear that the rights of an athlete are beyond reproach.

The Olympic Charter was written to protect athletes like Caster Semenya. It outlines the seven central tenets of what the Olympics are supposed to mean. One in particular speaks specifically to Semenya, whose blessing and curse was to be born with a different anatomy than most.

On Page 12 of the Olympic Charter, principle No. 4 reads: “The practice of sport is a human right.”

Here’s the reality: Caster Semenya doesn’t look like what a cisgendered society expects of a woman. Her hair is tightly braided to her head. Her breasts are small. Her muscles ripple. Her voice is deep. Her partner is a woman. Rather than the sports-bra-and-short-shorts uniform her competitors in the 800 wore, she prefers a full-body suit like the one used by male track runners.

None of this makes her any less of a woman, any less due those rights the Olympic charter assigns. Looking at physical attributes in a binary fashion gets us in trouble. We’ve broken competition into two categories, because most athletes fall strictly in one camp, but we have to acknowledge cases like Semenya’s and Indian sprinter Dutee Chand and another female athlete the Associated Press reported was subjected to a panel full of tests to essentially judge her womanhood. They do not deserve to be separated from other women. They deserve to be celebrated for lifting the ceiling of female accomplishment.

Semenya is not a great athlete strictly because of her physiology. Rare though they may be, plenty of women live with elevated levels of testosterone. Semenya is a great athlete because she takes the gifts her body gave her and parlays them into spectacular achievement. We want to see great accomplishments, and often that takes someone of unusual abilities.

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For years, the International Association of Athletics Federations, the world governing body for track and field, subjected women with elevated levels of testosterone to sex testing. Those whose bodies produced more testosterone were told to take medication to lower it, which seems to go against the second sentence of the Charter’s fourth principle: “Every individual must have the possibility of practising sport, without discrimination of any kind and in the Olympic spirit.” Surely the Olympic spirit is not to tell a woman she is too close to a man to truly be a woman, so get rid of that manliness.

All of this exists because of our collective ignorance, our inability and unwillingness to understand the human body exists on a continuum. Letting those who fall on it fall between the cracks, or even worse forcing them to hew to preconceived ideas of normalcy, is the purest sort of discrimination, where an authority figure determines a standard and foists it on subordinates.

Chand was a brave figure. She petitioned the Court of Arbitration for Sport to stop the IAAF policy, and CAS overturned it. Back came Semenya, whose performances had tailed off. Imagine being handed the keys to a Ferrari and being told you can drive it only in first and second gears. That was her life, this ruling her salvation, the result a shiny medal hanging around her neck.

Complicated though this issue may be, the fearmongering is reminiscent of all baseless propaganda perpetuated by frightened, exclusionary, ignorant people. Nobody wants men to compete in women’s sports. This is not opening the door for that. Similarly, the fear of male-to-female transgender athletes coming into the Olympics and dominating may well be overblown. A study in the Journal of Sporting Cultures and Identities last year showed athletes who underwent hormone replacement performed far worse as women than they did as men.

Neither of these cases applies to Semenya. She is a woman, indubitably so, and because the IAAF has determined to view womanhood through the lens of a hormone more prevalent in men does not make her any less so and should not make her any less capable of competing against those with whom she shares a gender. Competitors who want to complain about it should take up the issue with their parents. Just like Semenya, that’s where they got their DNA and all other biological components.

Another piece of the Olympic Charter applies directly to Semenya. The second principle says: “The goal of Olympism is to place sport at the service of the harmonious development of humankind, with a view to promoting a peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity.” And in many ways, the Olympics have. In Rio alone, there has been a team of refugees and a marriage proposal from a rugby player to her girlfriend. Before Neymar’s golden goal Saturday, Brazil’s biggest hero of the Olympics was Rafaela Silva, the judoka from the Cidade de Deus slum who is gay.

All Caster Semenya ever wanted was to run like she was born to, and CAS allowed her that. Once she got that, Semenya wanted the world to grow, to understand who she is, understand that she deserves, like everyone else, her dignity and the chance to compete. To unite people, as they should be.

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