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caster semenya: watch systemic white supremacy work

May 8, 2019
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To face tyranny head-on, one has to name it, bringing it out of the shadows into the world. In the case of the tyranny imposed on Caster Semenya, you need only know a single name: Sebastian Coe. The former track and field Gold medalist is a British Conservative politician who is the sitting president of the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF). Coe has spearheaded the campaign against Semenya as “evening the playing field” with the athlete’s natural advantage being painted as her cheating, specifically cheating white female competitors. This can be the only explanation when British Athletics spends $460 million on Olympic preparations while South Africa had just about $2.5 million for all their Olympic squads.

A popular example of the wildly different interpretations and responses to biological advantage is the case of 28-time Olympic medalist, Michael Phelps. The best swimmer to ever hit water has an abnormally large wingspan and has double-jointed ankles that give his kick extra, well, kick. He was celebrated as someone who was built to be a swimmer the same way Olympic cross country skier Eero Mäntyranta’s genetic advantage was that his kidneys secreted a red blood cell stimulant at low oxygen levels that gave him a leg-up in those conditions. Both of these men are viewed as biological wonders while Semenya, a human being, is treated as a biological abomination for her naturally occurring biological function. She isn’t doping, and to go against the code that demonizes doping as to alter her hormonal make-up to tamper an advantage is pure racist systemic violence on the part of the IAAF.

Unfortunately, the Court of Arbitration for Sport decided to uphold the rule that mandates that athletes with disorders of sexual development (DSD) running the 800m and 1500m (Semenya’s races) will either have to compete as a man or take testosterone inhibiting drugs. The ruling only affects Semenya at this moment. Coe’s response to the ruling was, “Athletics has two classifications: it has age, it has gender. We are fiercely protective about both and I’m really grateful that the court of arbitration has upheld that principle.” The court raised issues over the justifications for the 1500m and the mile but Coe told Reuters that that would not halt the ban on Semenya.

An entire president of an international sporting body now has legal backing to a gender classification built on a faulty foundation — that hormones like testosterone and estrogen are specific to gender. All genders produce each hormone and need both for hormonal balance. It’s like saying hair is inherently female because womxn have more of it, which, if you think about it, is another sideways notion about gender roles and the performance of gender. Classifying hair may seem harmless in the moment but what we don’t get to associate it to every day is how it snowballs into the explicit bias that contains the confines of gender when we are starting to understand the false ideologies carried by gender.

When we add race to the equation already containing gender then you have found yourself in the unique and often mythical reality of Black womxnhood. Semenya’s treatment from formal athletics bodies is an additional chapter in a painfully long history of the gross mistreatment of Black female/intersex/non-binary bodies. As a Black woman excelling in her field of sport, her entire professional career has been hijacked by targeted misogynoir — a hangover from the centuries-long normalization of the brutalization of the Black female form. Our form is already foreign and that is manipulated by white women to further entrench their position as the “pinnacle of womanhood”.

Semenya, a Black woman born with hyperandrogenism, is masculine presenting lesbian with a wife. She does not appeal to the patriarchy’s definition of womxn and her elevated testosterone levels are used as the basis of dismantling any claim she has to her 10-year-reign in middle-distance athletics. The kind of person who would benefit from that dismantling is fellow British middle-distance runner, Lynsey Sharp. Sharp is the daughter of Scottish Gold medal sprinter Cameron Sharp and Scottish track and field athlete, Carol Lightfoot. If the Olympics had Legacies then she would be one, considering that’s how she gets to secure her legacy. Sharp has built a reputation for being the runner who “has been previously cheated out of medals by subsequently banned dopers,” according to Reuters, but her only Gold medal was awarded to her in 2013 when original winner Elena Arzhakova’s biological passport was found with abnormalities.

Semenya has been called “inter-sex” and “trans” on many occasions by the international media, even after publicly identifying as a woman. The systemic ignorance that runs rampant when LGBTQ+ communities aren’t given public platforms is a veil of mystery used to other the community, conflating identities in order to further distance Semenya’s version of womanhood further away from runners like Lynsey Sharp. Where Sharp and Coe converge in this narrative is the fact that she was chosen over other more capable athletes by Coe because, according to him, “Lynsey Sharp can nick a few medals.” When qualifying for Britain’s athletics Olympic team in 2012, she was considered a B standard athlete, chosen above four other A standard athletes.

Sharp’s career was elevated by virtue of her family and the powers in place supporting her questionable ascension in British athletics. When even white privilege couldn’t help her win against the titanic talent that was Semenya, a new villain had been concocted and Sharp had, once again, become the swindled Gold-medlar once again. To remove Caster was to “protect the integrity of women’s athletics according to the IAAF, and because Sharp is a fake coward who would never publicly expose her true feelings about Semenya but her commentary is always along the lines of “there were obvious athletes with heightened testosterone” and that there were “two separate races being run.” Sharp even arrived at the 2016 Rio Olympics with a 2nd place mentality that, for some reason, was Semenya’s fault.

The IAAF cannot get away with this ruling because it’s likely that the binary these institutions cling so dearly to will not serve the future classifications of sport. The “two-gender” myth has been blown out of the water and we cannot allow the IAAF to double-down on its bigotry and marginalize athletes like Semenya instead of doing the real work of preparing for the future of sport and the new, inclusive accommodations that can be made. History will remember Caster as the agent of this change — the beginning of the end of an archaic system.