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How Castor Semenya changed everything

By Azad Essa in Durban
Posted on Friday, 28 August 2009 08:31

In the Know features an interview, opinion or analysis from the people making the news in Africa each week.

South African athlete Castor Semenya was welcomed home this week a national heroine after winning 800m gold at the World Athletics Championships in Berlin amid a growing storm over controversial gender tests she was subjected to by the sport’s governing body. South African blogger Azad Essa thinks Semenya’s return may prompt South Africans to rethink their gender stereotypes.

Once upon a time, a child was born to happy parents in

Masehlong, in South Africa’s Limpopo Province. As a young child, Castor Semenya

understood that she was different from the other girls. While the other petite

girls were relishing their new socks at preschool, Castor was already the high

jump champion in the neighbouring primary school. By the time she reached high

school, she was the wrestling champion, the sprint champion and she even took

on the boys’ tug-of-war team and won. The local newspaper even covered the


Semenya was not uninterested in boys. She liked that

cute lad Sibusiso in school, but when he suddenly groped her one afternoon in an

open field, Semenya’s knee-jerk reaction was to flatten his nose and break two

of his ribs. She didn’t mean to, but he was weak. All the boys seemed weak,

even weaker than the girls, except the boys were always acting strong and

important and dangerous.

Semenya understood, especially when the local pastor’s

son asked what Snoop Doggie Dogg was doing in a dress at a birthday-party, that

her chances at the Miss Universe pageant were always going to be slim. Instead

the bright youngster discovered that she could run like a bat out of hell and

followed her dream of becoming an athletic star.

It wasn’t long before Semenya was chosen to represent

South Africa and her fairytale sports story continued as she went to Berlin for

the World Athletics Championship. Her strong physique and powerful technique raised

eyebrows from the start. She conquered the 800m race, winning by an incredible

2.45 seconds ahead of the former world champion. Everyone was happy. Even Helen

Zille managed a smile from flooded Cape Town. But then like all fairy tales,

there was a twist to come.

The IAAF officials were stunned. They looked at each

other in shock. South African athletes can hardly make it from the hotel to the

track on time, how did this woman make it to the finals and win without

breaking a sweat? They looked at her closely, and some of the male IAAF

officials realised that Semenya’s biceps were bigger than their puny legs; but

when one of them saw some facial hair on the spunky athlete, they looked at

each other and nodded their heads with a wry smile.

“She couldn’t be female,” they remarked, and she

wasn’t allowed a victory lap. “Hold the she-male,” they cried. “Take her to the

gallows!” “Until we know her status, she is not to meet with the media!” they

called out.

Little did we know, the IAAF masterminds had checked

out Castor’s Spartan calves even before the competition and had decided to

conduct a gender test to clarify if the un-pretty athlete was really just an

average looking bloke inside. Meanwhile, as the tests were sent to the

laboratory for results, other experts, including an endocrinologist, were placed

on standby to deal with the situation. This is a big word for a fairytale, so

let me explain. An endocrinologist sounds like a doctor who fondles dinosaurs

but they are really just harmless hormone scientists who specialise in deviant

hormones and other internal human structures that you won’t need to know about unless

you get into Med School.

So these IAAF people, knowing that Semenya has a

vagina, ask the specialists to find out if she has an overflow of male

testosterone that makes her think of sex every 30 seconds (i.e. like a man).

To sound like good people, the IAAF was kind enough also

to bring in a psychologist. Her job is to ensure that no matter what gender

Semenya turns out to be following the test, Semenya is to be made to feel

handsome or beautiful.

But Semenya sits in a hotel room, soaking in the

contradiction of her disposition. Finally reaching the summit of her career and

yet at the depths of her personal life, she awaits to be told if she herself is

really the man she has waited for all her life.

Back home in South Africa, millions gather and

strategise her escape from the throngs of indignity. News of her plight moves

the population into rethinking their world. Women stop visiting the beautician

and let their facial hair grow. Beauty magazines are trashed and make-up

bottles flushed down toilets. Advertising agencies are given ultimatums to halt

the inferiority complex industry or face immediate closure. Men look for depth,

rejecting airbrushed FHM lasses and tell their partners that they are worth it

without the heels, make-up and push-up bra. Daughters are told that weightlifting

is as accessible as netball. Boys are taught that cooking is as cool as


Women reconcile with their vastly different bodies,

their looks and people begin to look beyond what people are supposedly meant to

look like. No matter what the verdict, the IAAF can’t hurt Semenya now. Semenya

returns home both a hero and a heroine.

Azad Essa’s Accidental Academic blog won best

political blog in the SA Blog Awards 2009. Visit for more of his work

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