Thursday, December 3, 2009

The Sad Story of Caster Semenya

Everyone has an opinion on this one but somehow this excellent article in The New Yorker by Ariel Levy seems to put things in perspective.

The article starts looking at Semenya's track club in Limpopo Province in South Africa- Moletjie Athletics Club. A club where running barefoot on dirt tracks that if you're lucky will be cleared of thorns and stones is the norm; in a province where poverty is everywhere and if you can see a way out you better grab it fast with two hands because it is not going to pass your way twice.

Semenya's coach advised her to do just that. He told her to work hard because she had talent, and if she worked hard enough someone might spot her and give her the keys to a golden future far from the thorny, dusty tracks in Limpopo. And the dream came true.

That is the very heart breaking bit for me. She did all she could and the dream came true. Her team mates left behind at Moletjie Athletics Club use her as their new goal post- if she could do it, so can they. Suddenly the coach's talk had some weight to it. A little girl Joyce tells Levy, “I will be the world champion. I want to participate in athletics and have a scholarship. Caster is making me proud. She won. She put our club on the map.” Why does hope suddenly sound so menacing?

In the article the coach admits that at many events Semenya was forced to go into the toilet with a girl from the opposing team so that they could check and see that she was indeed female. That done, they would get on with things.

In the article Levy brings up the very unique case of South Africa where the classifying of humans into categories is a wound still raw on the edges. With one word, you could think yourself white only to find yourself black, and all the weight of that classification would come crashing down on you. Who defines the category is an issue fraught with controversy and ANC Youth Leader Julius Malema and Winny Mandela took no time to jump on the band wagon and ride it for all its political worth. Outsiders would not define their daughter. The politics were sickening to watch, but underneath it all there was a solid grain of truth. Who defines us? Who gives them that right?

No one can say exactly what makes someone a woman and what makes someone a man. The deeper you go into the science the more variations you uncover and the more cloudy the issue gets. Semenya apparently has three times the testosterone levels of an average woman- but again what is average? Always the excellent in sport are not like the rest of us. They are gifted with traits outside of what can be produced with training. Should only the average enter the ring of competition?

At the end of the article the writer, by accident, stumbles upon Semenya. She writes -
When she shook my hand, I noticed that she had long nails. She didn’t look like an eighteen-year-old girl, or an eighteen-year-old boy. She looked like something else, something magnificent.

She speaks with Semenya trying to get her to talk a bit about what has happened. Semenya says she can't speak about anything. The writer says that must "suck". Semenya responds-" “That doesn’t suck. It sucks when I was running and they were writing those things. That sucked. That is when it sucks. Now I just have to walk away. That’s all I can do.”

And all I could see when I read that was the little girl running her heart out, barefoot, dodging stones and thorns, in the sweltering sun of Limpopo Province, knowing that if she just worked hard enough the dream her coach showed her might just come true. Now as she sits firmly in the folds of that dream, she sees the only way forward for her is to turn her back on it and walk away. How heart-breakingly terrible.

8 comments:

SueG said...

Yes, heartbreaking, and it brings to mind that old adage, "be careful what you wish for." So often it isn't what you think it will be. What a world.

Val said...

oh i agree it is so sad; amidst all the politics and posturing everyone seemed to forget that this was a human being they were talking about. however i do think she has a large and voiciferous support group too so i hope that helps to heal the wounds

Lauri Kubuitsile said...

Sue- so right- must watch those dreams.
Val- yes, the person was lost but I think many of the people around her still don't see that there is a person at the middle of it all- a person who will need to go on with her life.

But what about this classification issue? Why IS it so important? Is science making everything worse?

Selma said...

The ache of it must be unbearable. I could weep thinking about it.

swdhj said...

We've been hearing from all of Semenya's handlers trying to keep him/her eligible for female class competition, but he/she is young, and we don't know if this person necessarily feels more male or female.

Normally, an intergendered person should not have to conform to a particular gender, but we know in this case that it is not safe to have undescended testicles--there is a greatly elevated risk of cancer. So Semenya should decide to choose a male or female future, hopefully with support of psychological and medical experts, and proceed with surgery to either descend her testicles or to remove his/her testicles.

And fortunately, this decision and surgery will also solve his/her ability to compete in his/her chosen gender identity. If his/her testicles are descended, they will start producing more testosterone with lower temperature, and he/she will develop as a young man. If they remove the testicles, he/she will only have the normal female level of testosterone from the adrenals.

I think that the IAAF should allow him/her to continue to participate in track and field at the national level although he/she will have to be ineligible for international competition until he/she makes his/her decision. Obviously it is a major life decision, but not so tragic. If I were in this position, I think I would take a year or two, matriculate into college, take psychology, philosophy, and/or sexuality classes to broaden my perspective before I decide.

I would not be surprised if Semenya goes with the male route.

Lauri Kubuitsile said...

SWDHJ- Thanks for your insightful comment. Very informative.

bonita said...

Many times the decision is made by parents, while child is still an infant. Problem is, that does not allow for the the sex of the child as it is perceived by the child . Semenya will have the opportunity to choose if there will be a change and what it will be.

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