I’ve hesitated to write on this subject, because the ignorance and bitter feelings being expressed take away from the glory of athletic competition. But I feel I have to express my pride in Caster Semenya, who carried South Africa’s flag at the closing ceremony of the Rio Olympics, and who won the women’s 800m race on Saturday night.
For those who don’t know the background, Caster Semenya’s career has been dogged by years of humiliation at the hands of the International Association of Athletics Federations. Not because she’s a doper, but because she isn’t. Semenya is believed to have, naturally, hyperandrogenism, which includes a higher testosterone level than most women. As a result, she has been excluded from competitions and forced to take testosterone-lowering medication to inhibit her performance—even though no less than the American Medical Association has concluded that no one factor can make the difference for an elite athlete.
Sex and gender are complicated and not as binary as we were brought up to believe. The truth is, though, that Caster Semenya is not the only woman like this, even at these Games. In fact the appeal to the IAAF’s ruling that allowed them, once again, to compete was not brought by Semenya, but by an Indian runner named Dutee Chand. Caster Semenya has been humiliated publicly for years to a degree that no other athlete has, for two reasons: 1. She is a woman with a female partner who doesn’t try to look or sound as feminine as other people think she should, and 2. She wins.
These points are important. Lots of women have known a taste of what Semenya has gone through, though not on a spectacular international stage. Because our voices were deeper, or our presentation less feminine, than other women expected, we have been subjected to a thousand everyday gender shamings. We have been stopped at bathroom doors, whether or not we were transgender. If we are athletes, we have been told “Be a man, you try hard enough” or ridiculed in general for our physical efforts and trying to compete. If we actually are lesbian, we have of course been bashed for that too.
There were a record number of openly queer athletes at these Olympic Games, many of them gay or bisexual women, and there were plenty of slurs and shouting against them. But sexism and homophobia are not new in women’s sports. It was not until the 1980s that women were even allowed to run long distances at the Olympics, and we’ve all read about the first woman to run the Boston Marathon and attempts to manhandle her off the course.
Many people have heard about Semenya and may be sympathetic to what I’ve written above, but still have this nagging sense that there is something unfair about it. Of course an athlete is the product of her training and coaching as well as the body she was born with, but what about the other athletes? Isn’t it unfair to include a woman with more testosterone in her body than other women in the race, even though she comes by that level naturally?
Competition is unfair. It’s unfair that no matter how hard I trained, I could never beat Caster Semenya or any other Olympian on the track. I could train hard and receive good coaching, but I was not born with the body, the athletic gifts, that every single one of those competitors also has. Some have rare features, such as unusually long arms. In this case, a swimmer like Michael Phelps is generally admired for his magnificence, not persecuted as a freak.
A lot of things go into making an Olympic champion. Some an individual is born with and others involve hard work. No one feature can predict a gold medal—if it could, wouldn’t Dutee Chand have won her event? Yet she didn’t even make the final, crashing out of her heat. Clearly, there’s more than testosterone at work here.
A lot more. Think of the men’s 10,000m race, which only one person from the western hemisphere has ever won (Billy Mills, a Native American Indian, in 1964). Is this event less exciting because we fully expect someone from the eastern hemisphere to win it? Should we exclude such men from the race, or make them run separately, or take hormones to bring their speeds down?
How about Usain Bolt’s astonishing triple wins at the 100m, 200m and relay distances? They were astonishing, but not because we tuned in expecting someone else to win. We were astounded not by suspense over the outcome, but by Bolt’s magnificent gifts. He was the greatest on the track.
Would we rather Bolt take performance-diminishing drugs, so others had a chance to catch him? How about a special race for supermen only, leaving ordinary mortals to contest the sprints? Or let’s give Bolt’s gold medal in the 100m to the silver medalist, Justin Gatlin, who has been a known drug cheat.
It’s ridiculous. Bolt is the best thing to happen to track and field in years, because he runs faster than anybody else, in the body God gave him.
The woman who won the gold medal to Caster Semenya’s silver in the 2012 Olympics has since been disqualified for doping. Yet some in international athletics would like to force women like Semenya to reverse-dope (some have even undergone mutilation, an obscenity). Let’s leave aside human rights and fairness for a second, and ask this: Would it really be better for the sport if some women were forced to run more slowly than they can, in order to give other women a chance? Could anything be more demeaning to the competition? Don’t people watch the Games to see the very best on earth?
Years ago Kurt Vonnegut wrote a short story entitled “Harrison Bergeron.” In the world of that story, only people with severe speech impediments were permitted to speak on television. People who were deemed good-looking were required to wear clown noses, and especially fit people forced to weight their bodies down with shackles. All this made people “equal” so that no one would feel inadequate compared with an unusually gifted person. Vonnegut’s satire is obvious. But if world-class competition is reduced to such handicapping, don’t expect anybody to watch with pride.
As for Caster Semenya, she has proven to have more of that than most of the rest of us, too—pride and grace. “Be happy in front of your haters,” she posted last week; “it kills them.”
"Semenya didn't just win the gold medal in the women 800 metres final," writes Andrew Webster. "She won for every person who has ever been told they are different, they're not normal, that they should be ashamed of who they are."