Caster Semenya: sports and South African identity

Caster Semenya: sports and South African identity

by / 4 Comments / 56 View / 3rd September 2010

Berlin – Another victory was won on the field for Caster Semenya and South Africa. Yet on the sidelines, questions are still being asked: who is this young upstart, trying to give her best to the world in the face of doubt and persistent criticism?

The young Semenya is a cultural icon in South Africa, and not just for her incredible winning talent. She has defied the odds and her critics, faced a storm of controversy and somehow emerged unscathed. Caster’s story would be inspirational in a different time and place, but set against the cultural backdrop of a changing South Africa, there are parallels between her challenging story and that of the land of her birth.

The palaver surrounding Caster Semenya brings up similar themes. Again, South Africa is producing a world class performance, in the shape of a young and formidable runner from a small village in the country’s northern Limpopo Province. She is a young, enigmatic figure, with an identity that seems to confuse everyone, much like the country which bore her. The world and its media, true to form, are talking with the same sense of shock and inappropriateness as when addressing the fortunes of the country. At the same time, the official bodies in charge of sanctioning the ‘right’ to perform on the world stage, the International Association of Athletics Federation (IAAF) in Caster’s case, and FIFA in South Africa’s case, have scrutinised the issue closely, scientifically even in terms of their genetic and economic criteria and decided on the fate of South Africa and its right to play. [protected]

Following her ‘09 victory at the world championships, the middle distance runner garnered international attention when suspicions arose that she was intersex and so had an advantage over her female competitors. The IAAF’s handling of the matter sparked further controversy, with prominent South Africans suggesting that there was a racist undertone to the accusations and that Semenya’s human rights had been violated. Although the IAAF’s president staunchly denied the allegations of racism he did concede that the organisation might have been more sensitive in its dealings.

South Africa warmly supported its prized athlete and in November ‘09 it was announced that Semenya could keep the prize money and medal that she had earned. However, it remains unclear as to whether she will be able to compete as a woman in future races.

Football’s international governing body, FIFA, gave South Africa a ‘rating’ of ‘9 out of 10′ for its recent hosting of the World Cup tournament. People worldwide were enthralled by the spectacle of the event, with many captivated by and commenting on the spirit of the South Africans, who despite their team going out early after a fighting start, still managed to play the gracious host. Still others were infuriated and built a discourse of negativity around what they saw as serious cultural flaws, whether these be as serious as the crime rate or as innocuous as the noise of the vuvuzelas.

The country and its people have certainly had to put up with a great deal of international scepticism in presenting their identity to the world. With such a sense of doubt, one wonders whether South Africans would be able to confirm exactly what their identity is and who they are as a people. The truth is: there is no definitive answer. Events and cultural practices such as sports bring them together, they celebrate being themselves: a mix of everything they have experienced and the new entity they are becoming. South Africa is certainly no longer a monster in the eyes of the world, as it was in the dark years before democracy. Caster Semenya is thus a hero at home for what she embodies, which is to say the identity of a people still trying to assert who they are, while all the time showing their pedigree and hard-won sense of progress through their successes.