#HandsOffCaster: Why star runner’s case strikes a nerve at home

Dita Alangkara/AP
South Africa's Caster Semenya celebrates winning gold in the woman's 800m final at the Commonwealth Games in Australia on April 13, 2018. Semenya’s running future will be decided by three judges in the Court of Arbitration for Sport, starting Feb. 18 in a landmark case.
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Caster Semenya is fast – Olympic-gold fast.

But this week, Ms. Semenya has been in a Swiss courtroom, challenging a proposed rule that could change the course of her running career. If the International Association of Athletics Federations’ rule holds, some female athletes who naturally have unusually high levels of testosterone would have to artificially lower them in order to compete as women.

Why We Wrote This

Fairness is deeply embedded in ideas about sports. Just think of expressions like “fair play” or a “level playing field.” But figuring out what fairness really looks like is more complex than those metaphors let on.

It’s part of an ongoing debate about the blurry boundaries of sex and how they intersect with the clear-cut men-and-women categories of sports. It’s also a debate about deceptively complex issues of acceptance and fair play. 

But in Semenya’s home country of South Africa, where support for her is deafening, history also plays into how people perceive her case. Many see echoes of their own struggles, both personal and national, in hers. “When you’re being told to change something that you were born with, that you’re not in control of, or risk being discriminated against, that’s a pain that lots of South Africans know very well,” says Phuti Lekoloane, a professional soccer player.

Growing up in rural South Africa in the 1980s, Hlengiwe Buthelezi got used to hearing that she was too much.

Too strong. Too fast. Too much like one of the boys – whom she regularly outmatched in neighborhood pickup soccer games.

The only way she saw to fight it was to keep quiet. To run faster and kick harder and just pretend not to hear the whispers: She likes girls. She wants to be a man.

Why We Wrote This

Fairness is deeply embedded in ideas about sports. Just think of expressions like “fair play” or a “level playing field.” But figuring out what fairness really looks like is more complex than those metaphors let on.

Today, Ms. Buthelezi co-organizes a competition called the AfroGames for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex athletes (LGBTI). And this week, every time she turned on the TV or picked up a newspaper, she saw something else her younger self never could have imagined. It was a woman who looked like her, who loved like her, fighting on a world stage for the right to be herself. And she had the support of millions of other South Africans behind her.

Caster Semenya, a two-time Olympic champion runner at 800 meters, has spent the past week in front of a sports tribunal in Switzerland. She is challenging a proposed rule for runners that would require women with hyperandrogenism, a condition in which women naturally have unusually high levels of testosterone, to artificially lower the amount in their bodies in order to compete as women in events from 400 to 1600 meters. 

It’s a case that has sparked a global conversation about the blurry boundaries of sex and how to police those borders in sports neatly divided into men’s and women’s races. For many, it’s also a case about fairness: the fairness of accepting athletes as they are and the fairness of maintaining a level playing field – and about whether that’s even possible.

But in Ms. Semenya’s home country, support for her is deafening. In part that’s because so many people here, like Buthelezi, see echoes of their own struggles in hers – struggles that touch on sexual orientation and gender but also race, class, and nationality.

“When you’re being told to change something that you were born with, that you’re not in control of, or risk being discriminated against, that’s a pain that lots of South Africans know very well,” says Phuti Lekoloane, a professional soccer player. Having lived through apartheid and its aftermath, “we feel that pain with her.” 

A national symbol

Semenya’s fight began in 2009, when news leaked that the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) was conducting a “gender verification test” on the runner. Hours later, she blasted past the competition, and her own personal best, to win the world championship in the 800 meters race. “It is clear that she is a woman, but maybe not 100 percent,” Pierre Weiss, secretary general of the IAAF, said at the time. 

For many South Africans, the announcement smacked of discrimination. If Semenya was being asked to “prove” she was a woman, they asked, why had the same thing not been asked of all her competitors, including the white ones?

In fact, varieties of “sex testing” have also been leveled against a number of white women in the past, as international sports authorities have stumbled for ways to authoritatively define the “boundary” between male and female competitors. The IAAF has argued that high levels of testosterone provide an unfair advantage, particularly in short events. Critics, on the other hand, hold that a whole host of factors, from resources to height to coaching, provide just as much of an advantage or more.

To many South Africans, the IAAF’s line of reasoning felt like yet another humiliating case of a black woman’s body being scrutinized for how it naturally looked. And so when Semenya was cleared again to compete in 2010, it felt to many here that she had confronted history and won.

“When you look at the history of South Africa, someone like this – a black woman, who comes from a poor background, who identifies as a lesbian – this is not someone who was set up by our society to be great,” says Letlhogonolo Mokgoroane, a human rights lawyer and a fellow at Sonke Gender Justice, a South African NGO. “But against all odds, she is. And for South Africans, that’s been a reason to stand up and collectively say you can’t take this away from her.”

‘I was born to do this’

And Semenya herself has cultivated a public persona that is brashly unapologetic about who she is – on and off the track.

“Would it be easier for you if I wasn’t so fast? Would it be simpler if I stopped winning? Would you be more comfortable if I was less proud?” she asks in a 2018 Nike commercial. “That’s too bad, because I was born to do this.”

Semenya’s openness about her sexual orientation in particular has made her an inspiration to a generation of LGBTI South Africans, many of whom say they grew up with few “out” celebrity role models.

“I’ve always looked up to her,” says Mr. Lekoloane, who in 2015 became the first gay man to publicly come out while playing in a professional soccer league here.

But Semenya’s achievements are in other ways also a reminder of how far the country still has to go in terms of acceptance, says Buthelezi, the AfroGames organizer.

“In South Africa, we are liberated in the books but not always in our own society,” she says. The country, after all, allowed gay marriage before the United States and has a constitution that specifically protects the rights of gay citizens. But it has also long struggled to translate those rights into social acceptance, and discrimination and violence against LGBTI South Africans is common. “With someone like Caster, because people love her so much, they are trying to understand,” Buthelezi says. “And that helps break the stigma.”

The South African government has pledged to financially support Semenya’s current challenge at the Court of Arbitration for Sport, and on Wednesday the country’s minister of sport, Tokozile Xasa, flew to Lausanne to offer her support in person. A decision is expected in late March.

“What’s at stake here is far more than the right to participate in a sport,” Ms. Xasa said in a press conference last week. “Women’s bodies, their well-being, their ability to earn a livelihood, their very identity, their privacy and sense of safety and belonging in the world, are being questioned.” 

As she approached the final day of the hearing, Semenya seemed unbowed, tweeting to her 161,000 followers Thursday afternoon:

“Be fearless, be brave, be bold, love yourself.”

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