If she kept losing, there would be no fuss. But Caster Semenya was winning, and winning big, and so the questions started all over again.
It was truly pathetic watching two of the losers hugging each other and appearing to ignore the 800m Olympic champion as she graciously went towards them to acknowledge her competition. Suddenly all three African winners in the 800m (gold, South Africa; silver, Burundi; and bronze, Kenya) were suspect to be “hyperandrogenous women”. Sadly, the sporting authorities will start probing Semenya’s chemical fluids all over again.
However, too much of the local reaction to the questioning of Caster’s performance is based on rage.
The anger is understandable, but we really need to develop reasoned responses to the treatment of this talented athlete.
In the long run, simply engaging in the familiar pastime of rage is anti-educational; it does not give us the tools with which to demolish slick arguments against the champion or facile dismissals of her achievements.
One such project committed to this goal is an NGO called Thinking Schools South Africa, a brilliant initiative that seeks to insert thought and thinking into everyday classroom practice so that children leave schools not only having covered content but having mastered the ability to think their way out of difficult social and educational problems.
In this spirit of critical thinking, Malcolm Gladwell and Nicholas Johnson recently engaged in an interesting exchange in the New Yorker magazine on the merits of Caster’s Rio performance, the South African athlete born “with the biological equivalent of a turbocharger”. One of them argues, for example, that there is a reason that we have separate competitions for men and women.
If we did not, women would seldom win not because men are better but simply because of a chemical advantage that comes with higher testosterone values. We consider this discrimination to be fair, goes the argument, given broadly accepted gender variation in physical and chemical attributes.
Fine, but why choose testosterone as your marker of discrimination?
Why not the extraordinary long legs of high jumpers or the fast-twitch muscle fibres of the Jamaican sprinters or the high altitude training advantage of the Kenyan long-distance athletes or the unequal access to high-tech facilities and expertise in advanced capitalist states compared to refugee athletes from poor nations?
It is hard not to conclude that what is at stake here is prejudice parading as science.
Take for example this seemingly innocent commentary as Wayde van Niekerk did the unexpected – breaking away from former champions in the last stretch of his record-breaking 400m final at these Olympics.
“He had wings on his feet in the last 50 metres,” said the over-excited television commentator.
How should we interpret that revealing comment? That something must have assisted him beyond his natural ability to run that fast? What was “winging” him, in other words?
Regardless of the measuring index to be used for comparing athletics performance, here is the question that needs to be taken on – why do we insist on dividing humanity into two neat and tidy genders?
We know that intersex and gender fluid individuals exist in society. We know that Caster identifies as a woman.
The problem, therefore, is not Caster; it is the failure of society to acknowledge what has always existed but politely denied.
To make Caster’s testosterone levels the issue is to duck questions about variations in, and the complexity of, human identities and how social norms and measures should take account of these realities.
I cannot imagine how demeaning and distressing it must be for Caster and her family to continue to be ogled as a human oddity in a supposedly “normal” society.
Comparisons to Saartjie Baartman are no exaggeration. And so to disagree with Malcolm Gladwell, this is a human rights issue and not simply a matter of fairness in athletics competition.
To make the normal strange, even odd, is to engage in the worst kind of prejudice.
Caster’s case is, in the final analysis, not a measurement issue but an educational concern.
Biology textbooks for schools need to be rewritten to recognise intersex persons; similarly law texts need to account for such diversity.
Church sermons need to change beyond the simple narrative of “Adam and Eve” as pure, simple categories.
Parents must teach their children to accept and embrace these “new” identities among us for no prejudice rolls away by good intentions alone.
The task is political and pedagogical, and it will take time to change attitudes towards persons like Caster Semenya at home and abroad.
Professor Jonathan Jansen is vice-chancellor of the University of the Free State