Double Prejudice – Racial and Sexual Injustice
by Renwick Rose
Caster Semenya is a 29-year old South African athlete, excelling in the middle-distance races, 800 and 1500 metres.
Competing at this these distances she has become one of Africa’s and indeed the world’s most successful and outstanding athletes.
She has won two Olympic Gold medals at 800 metres (2012 and 2016), four World Championship titles, three at 800 metres and a 1500 metres victory in 2017, a double feat which she repeated at the 2018 Commonwealth Games. To these one can add countless victories in many international athletic meetings, making her truly a global superstar.
In spite of this, Caster never seemed to get the glitzy headlines or the recognition which her fabulous performances demanded. Worse, she was persistently hounded and persecuted by world athletic officials as if she always happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Even when it appeared obvious that her human rights were not regarded as equal to those of her competitors, she had to constantly strive to defend herself and her performances with at best lukewarm support from others, including women’s organisations which would have jumped to defend the rights of another such in her position.
What then was the reason? What crime did poor Caster Semeneya commit?
Her “crime” is not of her making. She is one of some rare individuals born with abnormal hormones. It is a condition called hyperandrogenism, a genetic condition which makes the body produce higher levels of testosterone, making her appear to be more male than female. There are some female athletes who have been known to induce this condition by taking artificial drugs, but not Caster, whose condition is natural and therefore who has a mixture of male to female glands which is not typical.
So, through no fault of hers, the more success she achieved, the more she was hounded and vilified, tested and over-tested with constant suspicion that each record, each victory was somehow achieved by less than fair means. The international media played its part too, practically bringing her “guilty” of being too fast to be a woman, questioning her gender and accusing her of winning by “unfair” means.
The World Athletics body would not let her be, humiliating her with a series of what they called “gender verification tests” and questioning the validity of her achievements. It is as if she has to justify her God-given abilities and she has never been able to bask in the glory of her success. She was smeared as a “man” who was unfairly competing with female athletes.
Yet for decades world athletics has put up with many female athletes who used artificial drugs, male hormone treatment, to enhance their performances. Some were caught and punished, but none had to endure the constant harassment and humiliation that Caster suffered. Even when there was no evidence of drug use to explain exceptional performances, those athletes, notably white, were lauded for their exceptionalism, not questioned like black Semenya.
Eventually, last year World Athletics imposed a ruling that athletes with her natural condition must subject themselves to testosterone-reducing drugs if they want to compete in female events between the distances of 400 metres to one mile, precisely the distances at which Caster excels. She has appealed the ruling twice but has not been successful, so one of the greatest athletes of all time is effectively banned from competing at her pet distances. It is like telling Usain Bolt that he would only have been allowed to run middle and long distance events.
In the face of this, Caster has maintained a dignified resistance, much as her compatriot Nelson Mandela did, in all his years of persecution. She has flatly refused to take artificial drugs to enable her to be “qualified” to compete.
Her rights as an athlete and a human being are being trampled for no fault of hers.
Yet there is not enough of an outcry on her behalf. Is it because first, she is a black South African? Secondly because she is by nature what some of our people would call a “man-woman”? And, worse, because she is gay and now married to her long-term partner? Can these justify the denial of her human rights?
I urge all who profess to cherish human rights and women’s organisations to speak out in support of this courageous South African.