The revival of Caster Semenya
The tale of South African runner Caster Semenya could be the script for a gripping Hollywood flick. It narrates a story of success, pain, disgrace and determination to bounce back against the odds.
Yes, at the youthful age of 21, Semenya has become a phenomenon for stirring reasons in the realm of athletics.
In the African Junior Championships in 2009, at 18 years-of-age, Semenya won gold in both the 800m and 1500m races with times of 1:56.72 and 4:08.01 respectively. But what followed her twin triumphs was an extraordinary turn of events leaving the rising star humiliated.
She was subjected to invasive and discomforting gender tests because of brisk improvement in race times, having clocked 1:55.45 in the World Championship final in Berlin just three weeks later. Moreover, Semenya was also scrutinised for her male-ish characteristics and muscular physique.
Now, the ‘legitimate’ reason for conducting a gender verification test in sport is to ensure that female athletes are ‘genuine’ women for competition. How bizarre! The laboratory-based test attempts to trace female athletes with certain chromosomal disorders that apparently give them undue advantage.
“I have been subjected to unwarranted and invasive scrutiny of the most intimate and private details of my being”, Semenya said adding that she had no choice but submit to The International Association of Athletics Federations’ process despite reservations about its integrity.
The IAAF was compelled to launch an investigation in Semenya’s progress since rapid breakthroughs in race time arouse suspicion of drug use. The Federation stated that the prime motive behind the test was to determine whether she had a rare medical condition giving her unfair competitive advantage.
In hindsight, it shouldn’t come as a revelation that a female athlete had been subjected to such thwarting treatment, not for the first time, in this world of male dominance.
In 1967, Polish sprinter Ewa Klobukowska was the first female athlete to be disqualified for having an extra chromosome and internal male-like characteristics. In 1985, Spanish hurdler Maria Patino was shocked when sex tests revealed that genetically she was male. Eventually, it took her two and a half years to be permitted to professionally race again.
Indian middle distance runner, Santhi Soundarajan, was also subjected to gender verification tests following her Silver medal triumph in the Commonwealth Games in 2006.
While it was revealed that a natural condition that produced excess testosterone contributed to Semenya’s dominance over experienced runners, the IAAF refrained from releasing intricate details of the investigation and eventually cleared her to return to competition in July 2010.
The furore surrounding Semenya could have easily killed her tenacity to compete again and maybe also forced her into premature retirement, but thanks to her steely resolve and along with the support of her lawyers, Caster Semenya is running again. And that’s all that matters.
Yes, after an eleven month ban from competition, Semenya is literally back on track preparing herself for the ultimate test – London 2012. Amidst all the euphoria following her qualification for the Olympics, Semenya confidently says, “I have to win gold, that’s what I want….The Olympics is a big step for me and everybody wants to win at the Olympics”.
Despite being away from competition for a year, Semenya is surging and showed glimpses of sparkling form, having emerged second best in the World Championships at Daegu in South Korea in 2011 with just minimal amount of training.
With a burden off her back and an infectious smile back in place, Semenya is raring to go, a positive sign for the world of athletics. Creating a new world record in 800m (currently 1:53.28 by Jarmila Kratochvilova) might prove a far cry but for a woman who has pulled herself up from the dumps, anything is possible.
It’s a pity that female athletes are put through such an ordeal when they stun the world with their genuine brilliance. Semenya’s story once again supports the belief that women are constantly under the pump in society, especially when they are on the rise.
However, for Semenya, there’s no stopping her now.