LaVaque-Manty, in a chapter of his book The Playing Fields of Eton, speaks of excellence in terms of competition. He mentions that “‘excellence’ gets relativized to some particular reference group,” so that competition can be meaningful among each group. This explains why women have been separated from men as a group, so that competition can be meaningful for them as well as men. Caster Semenya, in terms of meaningful competition within separation by gender, is undeniably excellent. Hailing from Ga-Masehlong, a remote village in South Africa, is a runner known for her excellence in the 800-meter race. As of 2009, she was the world champion; however, this was not a simple achievement for her. It soon became a highly publicized scandal.
Semenya has been criticized for her masculine looks despite having female genitalia. After she won the world championships, it was eventually revealed (after buzz about her gender had escalated) that Semenya had been forced to undergo gender testing by the International Association of Athletics Federations (I.A.A.F.). I.A.A.F. should not have even released this information due to confidentiality agreements; however, that was only the beginning of the organizations blunders. Although Semenya was allowed to keep her medal, and the organization did not ever release the actual results of the tests, it is shocking that tests like these even took place. LaVaque-Manty states that he is “interested in trying to understand the difference difference makes,” an it appears that a difference, in today’s day and age, still makes an incredibly large difference. Semenya has a deep voice, broad shoulders and chest, and she’s excellent. Are women supposed to blindly conform to one stereotype? Is there a certain octave that I must maintain in my voice at all times, for fear that I may sound to “manly”? To me, it seems that Semenya has been punished for being different, for not fitting into the nice little mold of what “woman” means.
The tests that Semenya underwent, which she was not given the option to refuse, by the way, must have been demoralizing for her. According to Levy’s article, she thought she was undergoing routine doping tests that she had experienced before and quickly realized that was not the case. To question a person’s gender without even making him or her aware of that is disrespectful and barbaric. To treat her as some freak of nature that needed to be prodded and stared at is so archaic, in the worst way.
Coming from a small, remote area, Semenya doesn’t “give a damn,” to use her words, about what all of these tests and publicity about. She just wants to run. It doesn’t seem to make much sense to strip someone of the identity she has held her entire life, just because she is different. She does not use illegal drugs. She does not try to hide who she is. She was “born this way” to quote Lady Gaga, and she did not have a choice to be born with female genitalia but decidedly “butch” physical traits, to quote Levy. Caster identifies as a female, so let her run as one. She has yet to break all of the records ever set by an 800-meter runner, so she is clearly not some anomaly as the public depicted her to be at the height of controversy.
Some might say that Semenya should participate in some ‘other’ category of those who have both female and male attributes. However, LaVaque-Manty states that “the demand for such categories is explicitly political,” and I tend to agree. Over-categorization of sports could take out the meaningfulness of competition, especially at higher levels of it. Semenya has been training her whole life to be better, and she is known to be a hard worker. Tossing her into a new category created because she was too good to be in the female category, but somehow not quite enough of a man, would be wasting her talent.
Eventually, it was determined that Semenya could participate in the 2012 Olympics in Beijing, as a woman. This is a victory, right? She could keep her identity and continue being excellent, due to both natural talent and inestimable amounts of hard work? Well, the answer doesn’t seem to be so simple.
LaVaque-Manty writes: “The stereotypes about excessively masculine female athletes aren’t anywhere as prevalent as they used to be, but they can still cast a shadow over women’s engagement in sports.” After accomplishing only a Silver Medal in the 800-meter race in 2012 at the Olympics, doubts were cast over Semenya’s effort. Did she purposely not engage as much as she could have, in order to stay out of negative spotlight and more scrutiny over her gender? If this is the case, shame on those who have collectively made such an amazing athlete feel this way.
Caster was born as appearing to be female to her parents, raised as one, and identifies as one. There are no hidden agendas in play, and she is not trying to scheme her way into gold medals and broken records. Let her be the woman she thinks she is, without anymore scrutiny. I hope there comes a time when she feels as though she can be the “magnificent,” to quote Levy, athlete she is destined to be and that reports of her sandbagging a race to avoid a scandal never have to come true.