I was watching the track and field championships in Berlin last month when Caster Semenya won her 800m gold medal in the fifth fastest time ever run by a woman.
But as I know from my time on planet Earth, if an African descended female athlete excels in spectacular fashion, we get accused of cheating or have ‘that’s a man’ shade hurled at us.
When you combine it with the hypercompetitive world of international sports in which national pride and prestige is on the line, it was inevitable that somebody would try to find a way knock this talented runner out of international competition, especially with the 2012 London Olympic Games on the horizon.
Gender testing for female athletes exists thanks to the blatant cheating of Nazi Germany in 1936, several former Communist bloc nations sending female athletes into competition with questionable external gender characteristics, and the East Germans feeding their female athletes steroids for more than a decade,
But in 18 year old Caster Semenya’s case, it’s ripping the scab off some old wounds. The ripple effects of this case are reverberating across the African diaspora.
For us African descended people in North America, we see it as the continued centuries old attack on the images of African descended women and our femininity.
It’s even more acute for Black women involved in sports. The Williams sisters have not only dominated the sport of tennis in the 2K’s, but these proud, statuesque ladies are making history off the court as well.
I and many other tennis fans found it quite curious when the 2009 Australian Open website omitted them from their list of the 10 Most Beautiful Women.
It wasn’t surprising that the list was full of Eastern Europeans in addition to fawning commentary about Jelena Jankovich’s ‘Number One body to go with her (then) Number One ranking’.
The old saying is beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Black women have always been seen thanks to racist myths rooted in slavery as ‘unfeminine’ vis a vis the vanilla flavored beauty standard.
If you think I’m off base, here’s a challenge for you.
Go to your favorite bookstore or drug store and head to the magazine rack. See if you can find a beauty magazine aimed at a predominately white female audience that has an African-descended woman on the cover.
And no, Oprah magazine doesn’t count.
Our continental African cousins see this in the context of the European colonial powers seeking to embarrass Africa.
Despite the fact that the current president of the Monaco based IAAF, Lamine Diack is from Senegal, the IAAF leadership since its inception in 1912 has been dominated by Europeans.
Continental Africans still haven’t forgotten how 800m runner and 2000 Olympic champion Maria Mutola of Mozambique was dogged throughout her illustrious decade long career by ‘that’s a man’ accusations despite passing test after test.
The way the Semenya case has been handled by the IAAF has only crystallized that impression on the Mother Continent.
It’s probably why officials in South Africa are backing her all the way. Makhenkesi Stofile, South Africa’s sports minister said that Semenya and her family maintain she was gender-tested without her consent and that lawyers were being consulted over possible action.
In addition, Stofile has written to the IAAF demanding an apology and seeking a response to those Australian reports claiming that she’s intersex.
Yes, if the IAAF had questions, they should have quietly done those tests. Somebody leaked the info in Berlin that got this hot mess started. It’s also not a coincidence that another leak in this case results in an Australian newspaper publishing those allegations that Stofile reacted to with “shock and disgust”.
You have to feel for Semenya in this case. It has not only put her personal business out there, but has been done so in the most humiliatingly public way possible
In the meantime, her athletic future rests on the results of the gender test and an IAAF Council meeting set to take place in Monaco November 20-21.
Semenya has also received some advice and support from India’s Santhi Soundajaran, the last woman to be subjected to this type of withering international scrutiny.
“She should not let them take away her medal or allow one test to determine her fate. “She is a woman and that’s it, full stop,” Soundarajan says. “A gender test cannot take away from you who you are.”
Even if the people behind this are determined to take away her 800m world championship.
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