In Defence of Caster Semenya

After the lifechanging embarrassment of last summer's gender test, Caster Semenya is back with a bang, and is taking no prisoners on the track.
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This Sunday, 47, 000 people flocked to Berlin’s sun-kissed Olympic Stadium to watch a star-studded field at the annual ISTAF athletics meet. One person there stood out like a sore thumb – and barring the protective arm of her coach around her, probably couldn’t have felt lonelier.

Caster Semenya, the young South African 800m runner, was returning to the site of her most spectacular success – but also the site where a harrowing saga began for her. It was here that she stunned the sport with a blistering charge to the World Championship gold medal last year, before facing excruciating accusations about her gender.  After 11 months on the sidelines and only two low-key performances going into ISTAF, on Sunday, it was back to the unforgiving spotlight.

Down in the mixed zone, I saw her arrive with the other athletes in her discipline, walking discreetly along the edge of the track, gazing up at the stands and taking in the spectacular sight of the buzzing stadium. She was kitted out in a black shellsuit and with her silver rucksack over her shoulder, the first thing that struck me was not how feminine or otherwise she looked – but just how young she was. Semenya is 19 and looked for all the world like she was on her way to a PE class.

After her race (which she won), she looked no less vulnerable as the media waited to pounce. The TV cameras were stuck in her face, as close as they could get, as she undid her spikes, swapped her shoes, rooted round in her rucksack for a towel. Every inch of her Lycra-clad body was pored over in search of some tell-tale sign: Were her breasts significant enough? What shape bulged in her running shorts? Did she show any facial hair? No wonder she waited to don a top before talking to anyone. Remembering how awkward it was being an adolescent, it was impossible not to shudder at the thought of what it must be like for her, facing such intense and intimate scrutiny.

I asked her a few questions for Deutsche-Welle TV, and she replied, calmly, confidently, despite the crowd thronging around her. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see one of Germany’s female javelin throwers casting a furtive glance over her body, the faintest trace of a smirk on her lips. The ladies locker room must be a lonely place for her.

"The first thing that struck me was not how feminine or otherwise she looked – but just how young she was. Semenya is 19 and looked for all the world like she was on her way to a PE class."

“Even if she is a female,” said rival athlete Diane Cummins after the race, “she’s on the very fringe of the normal athlete female biological composition from what I understand of hormone testing. So, from that perspective, most of us feel like we are literally running against a man. It is certainly frustrating to be running against someone who seems to doing it effortlessly.”

Semenya did, it is fair to say, power through the field in the home straight, finishing with a 1:59.90 that re-established her credentials. A sign of her mental strength – and perhaps her physical strength – if rumours are to be believed that she is undergoing hormone treatment. But what to make of Cummins’ remark?

As I read it, I couldn’t help wondering how Tyson Gay, all 5 feet 11 inches of him, feels racing against Usain Bolt – the yam-fuelled 6 foot 5 inch sprint king. Isn’t Bolt’s chastening of the field seemingly effortless? Isn’t the way in which he has mercilessly pushed the 100m world record towards its asymptote, down to his startling physiology? Bolt is a ‘freak’ – in that his unique make-up is a freak occurrence. No-one ever thought we would see a sprinter at once lanky, capable of running the 100m in 41.5 strides (to most runners’ 45), with explosive power and coordination to match. Then Bolt landed, as if from another planet.

Here is Gay’s attitude to him from a recent interview with Spikes magazine: “I’ve never viewed anyone as unbeatable. If anyone has beaten me, I’ve always worked hard to try to beat them. That’s why I can beat Bolt. You just have to try and execute,” he said. That was this spring. In August, at the Stockohlm Diamond League meeting, he grabbed the headlines, by beating Bolt for the first ever time in a 100m final. A week later, he ran the world’s fastest 100m this season in 9.78 seconds.

Diane Cummins, and the other vocal complainers in the women’s 800m field, need to learn from Gay. Put simply, if Cummins feels that someone clocking a time six and half seconds over the current world record (1:53.28) is unbeatable, chances are the problem aren’t with that runner’s body, but her own mind. Lady, man up.

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