She’s dangerous on the bend. Like Usain Bolt, Caster Semenya tends to surge past her opponents just as they have reached their physical limits, rounding the final turn into the last 100 metres of the race, before charging ahead to win.
At some point, Semenya is expected to break the women’s 800 metre world record (set in 1983 by Jarmila Kratochvílová). Sunday’s 800 metre final in Rio could be the day. She qualified with ease, albeit being roughly two seconds off the world record. Journalists reported that afterwards she didn’t stop to talk, and seemed to shy away from the spotlight.
Can you blame her? Most mentions of her achievements are overshadowed by speculation about her hyperandrogenism and whether her testosterone levels are giving her an unfair edge. So far, there’s no research to support that argument, which is why when Indian athlete Dutee Chand fought her case at the Court of Arbitration for Sport, they ruled in her favour and suspended the IAAF’s controversial policy of testing for hyperandrogenism, allowing women like Chand and Semenya to compete without having to chemically inhibit their testosterone levels.
It’s no coincidence that women of colour are more likely to be singled out – usually by the media and public opinion. They face a different level of scrutiny to their white counterparts, especially if they don’t meet the white standard of feminine beauty; the dominant lens through which all women are measured. Anybody that looks different to that narrow “norm” is highlighted for reproach and inquiry, with suspicion falling almost immediately on women who succeed when looking different.
There have been rumbles around how women with this biological make-up are a “threat” to women’s sport. But as academic Katrina Karkazis points out, with this level of testing being a relatively recent phenomenon, how many women in years gone by have competed with hyperandrogenism and not been noticed? Why would it matter more now and pose more of a threat?
Since the court’s decision, Caster has experienced a return to form, perhaps because she is now free to run just as she was born to. Her body is no less unique and suited to its purpose than Michael Phelps’ – yet the world celebrates his rare physiology, even as it hounds athletes like Caster and Chand, calling into question their very womanhood and humanity.
Having her body picked apart by the media has been a painful experience. Semenya is quite reserved and rarely gives interviews, but in her statement announcing her return to competition, she said:
“I have been subjected to unwarranted and invasive scrutiny of the most intimate and private details of my being. Some of the occurrences leading up to and immediately following the Berlin World Championships have infringed on not only my rights as an athlete but also my fundamental and human rights including my rights to dignity and privacy.”
Since she returned to competition, her displays have been so good that some felt she could break the world record at the Diamond League 800 metre race in Monaco in July. She narrowly missed out, but while the commentators marvelled at how relaxed and unassailable she seemed (“She can win at will”) I noticed something they appeared to miss. After the race she shook the hand of, or gave a hug to, every other competitor. Semenya is a gracious competitor as well as a graceful runner.
And then there’s her bravery; it would have been understandable for her to retreat from the spotlight after the media onslaught and the court case, but she has continued to do what she does best and what she enjoys: running. In a rare interview with the BBC last year, Caster said: “Running is what I will always do. Even if, maybe, the authorities could have stopped me from running in 2009, they could not have stopped me in the fields. I would have carried on with my running, it doesn’t matter. When I run I feel free, my mind is free.”
At her best, her grace and power channels all that is transcendent about sport: the brilliance of the human body performing at its best. We know that athletes are doing activities within reach of the average healthy person, but do so at a level that is the preserve of a select, brilliant few.
The South African clapback to criticism of Caster on social media has been strong, with the trending hashtag #HandsOffCaster. As an African woman, I cannot wait to see her possibly make history in the early hours of Sunday morning, and to see her running unfettered for the sheer joy of it. Hands off our girl. She’s a history maker.
 – Other notable hashtags are #Caster4Gold and #CasterIsMokgadi
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Kiri Kankhwende is a Malawian journalist and blogger specialising in immigration and politics. She has a background in French and Chinese language studies and holds an MSc in International Political Communications, Politics and Human Rights Advocacy. An accomplished public speaker, she has also written for the Guardian and the Independent, and has been a contributor to BBC TV and radio, Al-Jazeera and Fox News. Find her on Twitter @madomasi
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