Caster Semenya is a South African mid-distance runner. On August 17th, she will begin her challenge for the 800m crown in what has been dubbed by sports scientist Ross Tucker as “the surest gold medal in sports.” Though born in a town so tiny that its only online trace comes in the form of satellite coordinates, Semenya has been the subject of international sporting regulatory anxiety for the best part of a decade. That’s because she happens to be very good at winning. Too good at it, apparently.
Semenya’s body has troubled as much as she has inspired. Back in 2009, a leaked IAAF medical report revealed she was intersex, with naturally high levels of testosterone (not all of which was able to be received by her body). There followed a litany of abuses: a short-lived suspension, an undisclosed medical ‘intervention’, an intrusive and humiliating media frenzy.
Since London, the Court for Arbitration for Sport have lifted the level restriction on one ‘performance-enhancing’ substance at least: testosterone. Though the hormone is popularly understood to be a deciding factor in athletic performance, medical evidence has proved inconclusive and, in the absence of clear results, officials have trialled a two-year period where regulations on naturally occurring levels of testosterone are are lifted. Enter South Africa’s Semenya...and brace yourself for the inevitable backlash.
So far, the Rio games have been a meta-Olympics: the biggest interrogation has focussed on the idea of competition itself. What do we do with the sure knowledge that athletes dope? Is the four-year cycle of niche urban Olympic development economically viable? Is it ethically sound?
For once, then, Caster Semenya is no anomaly. With a body both powerful and power defying, she raises questions far greater than simply how fast she can run. Where, after all, does gender lie? Is it in our genitals, our chromosomes or our hormones? With every easy answer comes clear exceptions. Too often, exceptions are conveniently overlooked. Running at the front of the pack, though, Caster Semenya cannot – will not – be ignored.
The Olympics is the ultimate international sporting spectacle of bodies, politics and–inevitably–body politics. From doping to dating, athletes are under close scrutiny: at once extreme physical outliers and obsessively regulated within narrow competitive bounds. Let us be clear: none of the Rio athletes have ‘normal’ bodies. I could no more move through water like Michael Phelps than I could walk on it.
We have, in short, become very good at examining bodies closely. We can speed their movements up, slow them down to a fraction of a second, replay them, test them, map their chemical make-ups. We have reached the point where we know so much that we have finally discovered that, ultimately, we know too little.
And how has Semenya dealt with this kind of extreme scrutiny? In the London Olympics, it was through a staunchly raised fist as she entered the stadium as her country's flagbearer. Here in Rio, it's likely to be through her stylised personal salute for the camera. Like Usain Bolt and Mo Farah, she has a signature gesture: a simple crossing of arms over her chest, military in its precision, is accompanied by a sideways fanning of hands over her shoulders.
The gesture embraces both a clarity and ambiguity of message: is she communicating defiance, resilience or ambivalence? Does it signify a brushing off of criticism? Or are we to read it as a reference to having no chip on her shoulder? We can’t know. But one thing is certain: while Mo’s elevated elbow ‘M’ and Usain’s drawn arrow bolt draw speak to the ‘me’ of their names in an embodied signature, Semenya’s gesture of choice speaks directly to the ‘you’ of her critics.
...and critics there most certainly have been. Yet for South Africans, of course, Semenya is more than just a medal hope. Apartheid’s success relied on constructing and policing so-called ‘natural’ racial categories. This authoritarian 'obvious' system was nonetheless absurd: in 1986 alone 1600 people successfully petitioned to have their racial categories changed. At stake with categorisation was far more than a medal: it was the right to move, work, learn and love as one pleased, freely and with dignity.
South Africa has been dogged by embodied anxiety. Just weeks ago, Oscar Pistorius–the man who defied categorisation to compete in both Olympic and Paralympic events–was finally sentenced to six years in prison for the murder of Reeva Steenkamp, the culmination of a long and traumatic legal process. In an extraordinary turnabout, Pistorius the dominant national representative both recategorised himself as disabled and his country as disabling: the anxiety which led him to shoot, he argued, was a direct result of a broader national anxieties around safety. With such a fraught national history of, and current national anxiety around, embodiment, there is little wonder the hashtag #HandsOffCaster is currently trending across South Africa, as fiercely protective fans get behind their national representative.
Our bodies are not just our way of being in the world; they are our way of making our world. Those whose gait or shape, habits and movements present possibilities that we had not considered are treated as anomalies. In some cases, such anomalies are the stars of massive international events where we tune in to gape in awe. But in other cases, anomalies find it much harder. They are bullied on the playing field in school and–as with Caster Semenya–they continue to be bullied on the playing field as adults.
Whilst LGBTI hate crimes go largely ignored and unreported, while women are given symbolic acknowledgements but little tangible support, where to be Black or Queer or African continues to be to attract the wrong kind of attention, Semenya stands. While ever she runs, she marks time against out-dated attitudes, taking them literally in her stride and all of us–it is to be hoped–forward with her.
Carla Lever is a PhD student in the Department of Performance Studies at the University of Sydney. Prior to studying in Australia under an IPRS scholarship, Carla worked as a journalist and lecturer in Cape Town, South Africa, where she won a national BASA silver award for arts opinion writing. During her candidature at the University of Sydney, she has won national fiction awards, with work selected for an award-winning South African anthology of short stories.
Her thesis, which is currently under examination, examines performances of national identity in contemporary South Africa.