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Black athletic triumphs marred by racist charges

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The people of the Caribbean have every right to feel extremely proud of the performances of their athletes at the recent World Athletics Championship, which concluded in the German capital, Berlin, last weekend. The Caribbean put on its best-ever showing, with Jamaica leading the way to finish second in the medals table, but emerging on top in the “glory stakes” and popularity contests. More on the medals later, but it is also worth noticing that the Championship was also a triumph for athletes from the African continent.{{more}} In the month marking the anniversary of Emancipation and the birthdate of Marcus Garvey, who made the connections between Africa and the Caribbean, the flags of the “people who are darker than blue” flew very high indeed.

As expected, the perennial powerhouse of Track and Field internationally, the United States of America, won the most medals for a single nation, twenty-two, including 10 gold. The USA is an economic powerhouse with a Gross Domestic Product (GDP) many times the size of the English-speaking Caribbean’s most populous nation, Jamaica. Yet that island of just over 2 million people reaped a harvest of 13 medals, seven gold among them, two of these, the heroics of Usain Bolt in the individual sprints, can be considered as platinum performances. Overall, the Caribbean, Cuba included, won more medals than the mighty United States, 25, compared with 22 for the Americans.

Among this haul was a gold by tiny Barbados, Ryan Brathwaithe winning the 110 metres hurdles. Caribbean athletes accounted for more than half of the finalists in three events and contested the finals in 22 events overall. The Caribbean won more medals than Russia, China and the United Kingdom combined!

Joy was also evident in the African camp, though largely confined to the anticipated “big guns” of African athletics, Kenya and Ethiopia. But the benefits of lifting a whole people from racist oppression were spectacularly demonstrated by the performances of three South African athletes. Historically, with opportunities denied by apartheid to Blacks, South African participation on the world sporting stage, when it was allowed, was confined to whites. Today, in several disciplines, including the white stronghold of rugby, black South Africans are making their mark. That stamp of identity was emphasized by victories in both 800-metre races with a further silver bringing the tally to three, and the total African haul to 23 medals.

However, it was one of these victories, the women’s 800 metres, that controversy was sparked by what is widely believed in South Africa to be malicious action on the part of a South African media house (white). Athletics South Africa, the governing body of the sport in Africa, in a press briefing, accused the media house of complaining to the IAAF and raising questions about the gender of the winner, 18-year-old Caster Semenaya, who ran away with the race. As a result, the IAAF has ordered Ms. Semenaya, to take a gender test. Worse, the IAAF did not follow the usual rules of secrecy when investigating complaints, but publicly disclosed Semenaya’s name.

This has incensed South African athletics and government officials, and charges of “racism” abound over the IAAF’s actions. Some commentators have even gone as far as describing the IAAF’s actions as being demeaning to the talented teenager and comparing it with that meted out to Saartjie Baartman, an African woman taken to Europe in the 19th century, only to be exhibited as a wild beast with scientists examining her genitals. The behavior of the IAAF is considered so distasteful that Leonard Cheune, President of Athletics South Africa, has resigned from his position on the IAAF. “We are not going to allow Europeans to define and describe our children,” Duene said. He pledged defiance to the IAAF’s order of a gender test for Ms. Semenaya, adding that South Africa will not cooperate in any such test by “some stupid university somewhere” (the gender test involves tests from a gynaecologist. an endocrinologist and a psychologist, among others).

That defiance is nation-wide in South Africa and extends throughout the African continent. South African President Jacob Zuma staged an official welcome for the athletes at his official residence. He revealed that he has already written to the IAAF “expressing disappointment” at the manner in which the matter was handled, especially the breach of principle of anonymity, usually followed during an IAAF investigation. “It is one thing to seek to ascertain whether or not an athlete has an unfair advantage over others,” the South African President said, “but it is another to publicly humiliate an honest professional and competent athlete.” Lamine Dick, the IAAF President, has admitted the breach of confidentiality, calling it “regrettable”, but this has not mollified African ire.

The furore over the humiliating treatment of Ms. Semenaya has tended to cast somewhat of a shadow on the triumphs of Africans and Caribbeans at the Championships. Is this deliberate? What it does is to bring home to us the need for our officials to demand greater respect in international fora. At present, sport worldwide reflects the Eurocentric focus of colonial conquest and dominance by whites. They still “run things”. Even at the Olympics, this bias is reflected in the sports given Olympic recognition. There is even a separate Olympics for “winter sports”, irrespective of the fact that the vast majority of the world’s peoples do not engage in them. Similarly, among “summer” Olympic sports are the likes of equestrianism, the archaic archery, shooting and fencing. We are still very much marginalized.

Renwick Rose is a community activist and social commentator.

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