Caster is black, a woman, successful and challenges the traditional gender image of femininity – she makes the world uncomfortable….argues Pinky Khoabane
Caster Semenya, the world’s leader in the women’s 800 meters this year, cruised through her heat in Rio as part of her campaign to win Olympic gold this Saturday.
The 2012 silver medallist let her counterparts take the lead before she upped the ante in the finish straight to win.
She had run a similar race in 2012 but was unable to put-in the power to give her gold at the finish line.
Like everything she does, her race in 2012 was highly criticised, with many saying she had opted for silver as a way of avoiding the controversy over her gender that has dogged her since she first came onto the track-and-field arena way back in 2009.
With everything she’d gone through at the tender age of 18, it would not be surprising that she would want to avoid the ordeal and scrutiny she was subjected to then.
She may not have consciously made the decision to go for silver but psychologically and mentally, she may have decided gold wasn’t worth the trouble.
And indeed, questions about her gender in 2012 were seemingly a thing of the past.
Semenya is back – kicking butt ahead of the Rio Olympics and the gender questions have swirled again.
But what is it about Semenya that makes people including her opponents so threatened by her?
She caught the world’s attention in 2009, largely unknown, to win the World Championship 800m title which she ran in 1:55:45, well off the record of the 1:53:28 set by the Czech Republic’s Jarmilla Kratochvilova in 1983.
It wasn’t that she had taken away someone else’s glory, white at that.
I first heard of Caster Semenya during my short daily trip to work in 2009. The venom spewing from the interviewer, John Robbie of Radio 702, was simply shocking. He was interviewing an official from Athletics South Africa and the unsubstantiated attack on the official and Semenya prompted me to write a piece; That’s our Girl you messing with.
At the time I had never seen her but the first thought as I listened to the radio was of the many masculine East European track-and-field women athletes. I was furious. I put it down to race: That she was a young black woman who was doing well and threatening the gold medals of the other women. The column caught a lot of attention both here and abroad and I found myself on several radio stations having to explain my position. I have since changed my mind somewhat! Semenya challenges much more than race.
There are many black track and field women athletes who are just as muscular. Mozambican Maria Mutola, the 800m three-time World Champion and Olympic champion has not had to endure what Semenya did.
The late African American Florence Grifiths Joyner, better known as Flo Jo, was considered the world’s fastest woman having broken records in the 100m and 200m races. She too was very muscular as many of the track and field women are. She has never had been scrutinised for her body.
The difference between Caster and many of the track-and-field women is that she had not until the gender questions swirled around her, tried to look anything else but the way she is.
Many women athletes find they must disguise their masculinity and prove their womanhood by wearing jewellery, the make-up, the lavish nails, weaves and as Flo Jo did, flamboyant attires.
Semenya shatters the stereotypical image of what women should look like, how they must act and behave and what they must do in the absence of the typical feminine attributes.
She tried to look feminine after questions of her gender threatened her career on the track and field. She appeared on the cover of You magazine looking all feminine. It didn’t last and it didn’t work.
The traditional gender norms where women are feminine and wear skirts and pink clothes is a thing of the past. The notion that gay men cant play the macho sport is also gone. Today’s world is one where there’s fluidity in gender roles and a place where people reject strict gender norms; we have a Caitlyn Jenner who was once Bruce Jenner; and we have actor Will Smith’s son, Jaden, who wears women’s clothing. And then we have Caster. Let her be!