If you aspire to be a star woman athlete but have no aspirations to appear in Playboy‘s Women of the Olympics issue, you are far better off being from South Africa than the United States. The Western media’s handling of the story of Caster Semenya, the gold-medal-winning 18-year-old South African runner, has been at best simplistic and at worst repellent. In a salacious, drooling tone, “Is she really a he?” is the extent of their curiosity. On various radio shows, I’ve been asked, “Why does she talk like a man?” No one defines what “a man” is supposed to talk like. Or, “Do you think she’s really a dude? Is this a Crying Game thing?” I’ve heard it all this week, and most of the questions say far more about the insecurities of the questioners than about Semenya’s situation.
It’s not just in the confederate confines of sports radio. I appeared on Campbell Brown’s CNN show, where my co-panelist, Dr. Jennifer Berman, said that suspicion of Semenya’s gender was justified because she is “8 feet tall” (she’s 5-foot-7). How an 18-year-old runner became Yao Ming in Dr. Berman’s mind was never addressed. This is hysteria, pure and simple, and it is born out of people’s own discomfort with women athletes who don’t conform to gender stereotypes.
In South Africa, however, the response could not be more different. Semenya was greeted by thousands of people in a celebration that included signs and songs from the antiapartheid struggle.
She was even embraced by former South African first lady Winnie Mandela. “We are here to tell the whole world how proud we are of our little girl,” Mandela told cheering fans. “They can write what they like–we are proud of her.”
As Patrick Bond, a leading South African global justice activist, said to me, “To order Semenya tested for gender seems about as reasonable as ordering IAAF officials like Philip Weiss tested for brain cells–which actually isn’t a bad idea given his recent off-field performance. And if Weiss doesn’t have a sufficient number of brain cells to know how to treat women athletes, it would only be fair to relieve him of his functions for the good of world athletics.”
It’s not just national political figures with global profiles who are embracing Semenya.
The people have rallied around her fiercely, particularly in the very rural, impoverished, subsistence-farming community where Semenya was raised. Her home village, Masehlong, has an unemployment rate near 80 percent. They only recently acquired electricity.
As The Guardian recently wrote:
The loyalty of Semenya’s friends and neighbours is striking. South Africa’s rural communities are typically regarded as bastions of social conservatism divided into traditional gender roles and expectations of femininity. But there is no evidence that Semenya, an androgynous tomboy who played football and wore trousers, was ostracised by her peers. Instead, they are shocked at what they perceive as the intolerance and prurience of western commentators.