She’s fast, they’re furious: What Caster Semenya’s story teaches us about colonialism

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In the early 19th century, a South African woman, Saartjie Baartman, was coerced into signing a contract with a European “doctor.” Derogatorily nicknamed the “Hottentot Venus,” Baartman was forced into performing for crowds in tight, skin-colored clothing designed to exhibit her body in full. Often, audience members were allowed to touch her. Teams of scientists and artists painted her and studied her body. She died at the age of 26 in Europe, but the commodification of her body continued — a Paris museum displayed her brain, skeleton and sexual organs until 1974, along with a plaster cast of her body.

Although her body was finally returned to South Africa and laid to rest in 2002, the legacy of white settler colonialism is still very much alive.

A mere seven years after Baartman’s remains were repatriated, the treatment of track star Caster Semenya ran parallel to the tragedy of Baartman. Semenya’s story must be understood if the sporting world wishes to dismantle the white colonialism that allows these injustices to repeat themselves.

Mokgadi Caster Semenya, known widely as Caster Semenya, was born in South Africa in 1991. Her incredible potential on the track was revealed early, as she ran often to train for soccer.

At the age of 18, Semenya competed in the 800-meter race at the world championships in Berlin and won, but her success on the track was followed by immediate scrutiny. Conflict arose around Semenya’s gender expression, and her legitimacy as a female athlete was put into question.

The International Association of Athletics Federations, or IAAF, began a slew of tests and examinations to determine if Semenya should be eligible to compete as a woman. These tests were invasive and intrusive — no regard was given to Semenya’s privacy and human dignity. She was treated as a human spectacle, as discussions around the sex, gender and genitals of an 18-year-old woman became entirely permissable.

The results of Semenya’s test results were leaked to the public, and the knowledge that Semenya allegedly has three times the “normal” testosterone level for women began to circulate widely.

“These kind of people should not run with us,” said Italian runner Elisa Cusma, who had toed the line with Semenya in Berlin. “For me, she is not a woman. She is a man.”

The scrutiny spread far beyond Semenya’s seething competitors. Time magazine posted an article about Semenya, horrifically titled, “Could This Women’s World Champ Be a Man?”

Her “physique, coupled with an ongoing gender verification test, is fueling suspicion that Semenya could be stripped of her medal because she is actually a he,” reads the 2009 Time article, displaying a tone deafness that was out of line even more than a decade ago.

Semenya was allowed to compete at the 2012 and 2016 Olympics, and she walked away with gold medals each time. However, her successes only fueled subsequent dehumanization from the governing track body, her fellow competitors and the media.

The IAAF hammered the final nail into the coffin in April 2018 with the announcement that women who produce higher-than-average levels of testosterone — even naturally, as is the case with Semenya — would not be eligible to compete in mid-distance events (400 meters to a mile in length) unless they reduce their testosterone levels with medication, including hormonal contraceptives.

The policing of gender norms within the world of sports sends a message loud and clear to Semenya and athletes like her: Conform, or get out. Semenya, who has remained adamant in her refusal to decrease her natural testosterone levels, has chosen to get out.

“The revised rules are not about cheating, no athlete with a (difference of sexual development) has cheated,” proclaimed IAAF President Sebastian Coe in a press release. “They are about levelling the playing field to ensure fair and meaningful competition in the sport of athletics where success is determined by talent, dedication and hard work.”

When the IAAF talks about “levelling the playing field,” it seems it is only concerned with making sure athletes fit neatly within gendered boxes, not manipulating athletes’ bodies when other genetic factors may contribute to an athlete’s success.

Michael Phelps, the most decorated Olympic athlete in history and nicknamed the “Flying Fish,” has lungs with twice the capacity of the average athlete. His double-jointed elbows, paired with a wingspan 3 inches longer than his 6’4” height, allow Phelps to propel himself through the water at an aberrant pace. His ankles can bend 15% farther than those of his average competitor can, making his size 14 feet closely resemble flippers.

Genetically, Phelps was given physical advantages that other athletes can only dream of. Why do Semenya’s biological differences, which happen to be related to our understanding of sex and gender, disqualify her from competition, when Phelps’ biological differences have made him the most decorated Olympic athlete of all time? Why were Phelps’ differences celebrated and Semenya’s differences damning?

It seems that women in sports, but especially Black women, are fighting two battles. On one hand, to compete at an Olympic level, an athlete must achieve a body that defies stereotypical gender expectations. On the other hand, they must retain enough femininity to still be seen as a “desirable woman,” otherwise risking dehumanizing comments from the media.

Being a Black woman and athlete adds another layer of difficulty, as they contend with the harmful stereotypes perpetrated against Black women and Black sexuality. The invasive sex testing that the IAAF administered to Semenya further cemented these harmful stereotypes, including the notion that Western establishments are entitled to make exhibitions of Black bodies.

The way Semenya was treated by the IAAF is reminiscent of colonial treatment of Black women such as Baartman. The legacy of white settler colonialism has taken root within the world of modern-day sports.

It is fair to speculate that had Semenya been white or had she adhered to stereotypical gender performances, she would still be competing on the track in the 800-meter race. Her best time of 1 minute, 55.16 seconds was achieved in 2017 at the world championships, and with elite training, she likely would have continued to improve. Right now, she would be gearing toward the 2021 Summer Olympics, her naturally occurring testosterone levels irrelevant as she vied for a podium spot on the world’s stage. Under the existing guidelines, however, the image of Semenya winning gold in the 800-meter in Tokyo will never be more than speculation.

Caster Semenya is a Black woman who defies outdated gender expectations. But she was fast, and that’s all that should have mattered.

Sarah Siegel covers women’s gymnastics. Contact her at [email protected].