Born in South Africa’s province of Limpopo, Sanelisiwe Gantsho has always felt a special affinity with Olympic medallist Caster Semenya. Here Gantsho reflects on what the CAS ruling means for black female athletes, trans individuals and South Africa as a whole.
I could have used the words ‘beautiful’ or ‘talented’, but the word ‘brilliant’ is more suitable and all-encompassing of Caster Semenya – and even more so in the light of her failed appeal to the Court of Arbitration for Sports on Wednesday 1st May 2019. Her brilliance is an active force opposing biases and she has a noticeable grace (observed by journalists throughout her legal battle) that very few of us could display. When asked to write about Semenya several months ago, I immediately pounced on the opportunity. I’m a South African based in Gauteng and have always admired Semenya’s spirit and determination. But the question that uncomfortably picked at my brain then – as it does now after the ruling – was why Semenya’s brilliance was considered problematic? I gnawed into my emotional memory, racking my brain, trying to locate the origin of my anger. My first memory of a female body being ridiculed was around the time when Sarah Baartman’s remains were finally approved by the French government to be brought back to Africa. I recall the emotion, the dialogue I had with my family and what felt like a weird conversation through an old VHS recording on a black and white TV. This, in my eyes, was the spark to the important conversation we’re still having around black female bodies. Today, a black female athlete’s body is being questioned, examined and pulled apart (as was Baartman’s) for its natural, winning abilities and characteristics. The antithesis of natural for me, in the case of Semenya, is forced medical reconstruction, ingesting hormones to alter and suppress her testosterone levels, as well as the unjust scrutiny and pressure she has been placed under in order to continue her career. The IAAF’s entrenched biases towards black women, especially black trans women, have been exposed with this ruling. It is a sad day for anyone born naturally brilliant, especially when they dare to fight the powers that be.
As hinted above, my definition of natural is not exactly what biology textbooks would suggest. Words that come to mind are ‘unhampered’, ‘born that way’, and ‘no surgery or hormone intake.’ So far, Semenya passes science-approved understandings of what it is to be ‘natural’. So what’s the problem? Well, firstly, Semenya’s sustained success as a runner makes the IAAF uncomfortable – hence their policing of what is biologically natural to her (policing that didn’t extend to Michael Phelps or Usain Bolt’s extraordinary though no less natural abilities). But beyond this is an insidious understanding and prolonged definition of what is and is not natural: for the IAAF, a black female athlete with the strength and testosterone levels, not to mention the track timings and wins that they equate to a male athlete simply does not fit this. Oppressive perversions are therefore perpetually manifested in and out of the sporting world: male and female, white and black; each have their own allotted categories. For the IAAF, Semenya breaks these carefully constructed binaries. What is unnatural to them is a winning black female athlete who plays by the rules.
Success in the Soil of Semenya’s Limpopo
Caster Semenya was born into a poor underprivileged community in the province of Limpopo. Despite her humble beginnings she has gone on to brake global track running records. This is an aspect of her story that the world should observe. The duality of winning and not satisfying hormonal criteria, shouldn’t be the focus – and it shouldn’t be her problem. Semenya’s birth place is special to me. I was born in the province of Limpopo and I guess the bond I have with her is this, and it compels me to vocalise the moral unfairness of this judgment. Her running is a symbol of success from that region and utterances of acknowledging discrimination ‘in such a difficult decision’ spits on the people of South Africa. I’m a product of the same soil that has birthed her inspiration and it’s important for me to keep Semenya’s defiance alive, visible and loud. She must live through the ages, inspiring the much needed change to absurd regulations.
Semenya’s running is a symbol of success from Limpopo and utterances of acknowledging discrimination ‘in such a difficult decision’ spits on the people of South Africa.
Regulated talent is an insult; a human construct to contain brilliant people like animals in a zoo. The question is, what happens after this loss? Answers, the real answers, lie in deep-seated mental cavities that control reasoning. Reasoning that can diverge from ethics. A so-called reason can even be legalised. We have to be reminded that the field of ethics – what is fair – is not always formalised into a legal framework. Semenya now represents policed freedom; she has literally been trying to run towards her goals and has now been stopped at a juncture where her decisions will impact those who come after her. Wednesday 1st May 2019 is a day I felt both crazy for believing in a fair world and sub-human for being a woman. As hard as it is to confront, in between the tears is a life lesson: the playing field is not fair and the starting point is different for all participants. Semenya’s confidants, partner and professional associates need to move bravely from this point. They should not entertain any crazy rebellion talk, but instead keep to a reformulated strategy. The failed appeal is entrenched in the stench of scientific racism, sometimes referred to as race biology. The IAAF simply gathered evidence to justify their superiority. Although no longer considered scientific mainstream practice, it evidently lingers in the reasoning for such a ruling.
What ought to be and what is
The economic philosophy of what ought to be and what is has steered my thoughts on this sad day for women worldwide, and left me trying to hypothesize what is fair. The loss of her appeal lies between these two extremities. Somewhere sadly far removed from the ought to be state of freedom. This piece advocates for a state of freedom for Semenya and for the future generations that seek counsel, encouragement and continue to grow more powerful collective efforts to change the status quo. The stems of our societal sickness have locked and spread deeper within the earth’s soil. It has resulted in the violation of human rights against the evidence of natural variations in human bodies and gender.
Is this the death of women’s sport as we know it? To some extent, yes. More worryingly the ruling defers the reality of a trans landscape of fluidity, safety and a right to participate in all factions of existence, society and calling.
The IAAF has seized its power like an attacker that survives the courts. Good coaches teach,‘train, do your best and win’. Yet, in reality, competing on the basis of natural talent gets a woman to a certain point in her sporting career. Artificial intervention is then instructed when she is too good.
Is this the death of women’s sport as we know it? To some extent, yes. More worryingly the ruling defers the reality of a trans landscape of fluidity, safety and a right to participate in all factions of existence, society and calling. Semenya stands strong in the face of the ruling and responds: ‘I know that the IAAF’s regulations have always targeted me specifically. For a decade the IAAF has tried to slow me down, but this has made me stronger. The decision will not hold me back. I will once again rise above and continue to inspire young women and athletes in South Africa and around the world.’
Symbolic, human zoo-like conditions will make up a new normal environment for brilliant female athletes. Scheduled check-ups and shots under supervision a continued reality. The world spotlight replaces the circus lights and entertained spectators for a while, as we see how the sporting fraternity unfolds.