We join millions of South Africans in congratulating our latest Olympic medallist, Caster Semenya, who ran the fastest 800m this year to clinch gold in Rio yesterday.
As expected, our golden girl’s triumph has sparked controversy, reigniting the indignity she has endured since her 800m victory at the World Championships in 2009, when she was just 18 years old. Semenya’s life has so far been a heartbreaking tale, layered with prejudice, sexual bias and even racism.
Ever since taking the athletic world by storm in 2009, Semenya’s physique and powerful style have sparked speculation that she may not be “entirely female”. She endured the indignity of having the details of which sexual organs she has become public knowledge.
Semenya has persistently been insulted and unfairly cast as some sort of cheat for just being who she is.
“I think they understand me as I am. I am not a fake. I am natural. I am just being Caster. I don’t want to be someone I don’t want to be. I don’t want to be someone people want me to be. I just want to be me. I was born like this. I don’t want any changes,” Semenya told the BBC in an interview last year.
But has the world given Semenya space to be who she is? Certainly not. Her victory yesterday has set tongues wagging, and once again Semenya is being haunted, instead of been given space to celebrate.
Prior to her historic victory yesterday, many critics all over the world tried to break her spirit, once again questioning her gender. But Semenya rose above all odds and demonstrated the true spirit real champions are made of.
Before the 2009 World Championships, Semenya was forced to undergo humiliating sex tests. The runner was reportedly left “distressed and humiliated” by a two-hour examination in which her feet were placed in stirrups, her genitals were photographed and her internal organs examined.
Following that, she was subjected to gender testing and diagnosed with hyperandrogenism, meaning her testosterone levels were far in excess of those of the majority of women. Semenya was banned for 11 months while the tests took place.
But last July, the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS), the high court of athletics, struck down the hyperandrogenism regulation as discriminatory because of a lawsuit by another female athlete, Dutee Chand of India.
The CAS told the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) and the International Olympic Committee they had to produce significant, peer-reviewed scientific evidence that naturally occurring (endogenous) testosterone was really responsible for unfair performance among females. And that hasn’t been done yet.
Instead, hours before the 800m final yesterday, IAAF president Seb Coe confirmed the organisation would soon go back to the CAS to try to overturn their 2015 decision.
In the meantime, Semenya continues to be subjected to humiliation for something not of her own making. Her victory yesterday has once again put her under the microscope, with haters and sore losers questioning her sex in cruel and dehumanising social media posts.
That a young woman, who has overcome all hurdles to achieve her dream through hard work, should be subjected to this public humiliation is shameful. Disgraceful this may be, but it should not discourage South Africans from joining Semenya in celebrating the greatest athletic victory of her life.
We also salute all South Africans who rallied behind her and the entire SA team for flying the country’s flag high in Rio. Semenya’s gold was Team SA’s 10th medal in Rio – and the 25th gold won by SA in its Olympic history.
While this may not be enough to propel us into the same league as the world’s sporting giants, it’s still an achievement well worth feting.