Sexism and Racism Still Dominate World Athletics

I watched Caster Semenya win the 800 metres at the Weltklasse athletics meeting in Zurich last week and was troubled by the reaction to her victory.

Semenya’s lap of honour took much longer than the race, as she basked in the warm congratulations of the crowd whilst stopping to take selfies and sign autographs for spectators. But, as was the case after her win at the Olympic Games in Rio, her fellow competitors were visibly colder and offered no more than a few cursory handshakes.

Some athletes and commentators have expressed misgivings about the alleged advantage Semenya derives from her hyperandrogenism, a medical condition that causes elevated levels of testosterone in women who suffer from it. This is despite the Court of Arbitration for Sport judging last year that it was “unable to conclude that hyperandrogenic female athletes benefit from a significant performance advantage.”

Amongst other evidence, that judgement is supported by the fact that Semenya’s best 800m times are a greater percentage behind those run by men than the times of non-hyperandrogenic female athletes in other similar track events.

The Court’s verdict struck down a two year old International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) rule imposing limits on naturally occurring testosterone levels in female athletes. In order to be allowed to compete whilst the rule was in force, Semenya and several other women were compelled to take medication in order to suppress their natural state. Pressurising athletes to alter their physiology by such methods seems extremely dubious in an era when the sport is being devastated by drugs scandals.

Regardless of the legal position, many of the attitudes displayed towards Semenya are disturbing. Elite sportsmen and women are in part defined by their ability to make the most of their natural endowments. No complaints were expressed at the same Rio Olympics about Usain Bolt’s unusual fast-twitch muscles. No amount of training would enable me to match Lionel Messi’s eye to foot coordination. And I have yet to hear calls for basketball players’ height to be capped at six feet because of the unfair advantage being taller gives them over the rest of us.

ALL FAIR-MINDED PEOPLE SHOULD BE WARY OF NEGATIVE ATTITUDES TOWARDS SEMENYA

Advantages do not only come in physical form either. Those who are resentful of Semenya may wish to consider how her upbringing as a black girl in a poor, rural village in South Africa compares with the expensive equipment, pristine running tracks and specially tailored nutrition a number of other athletes enjoy from an early age.

Some critics concerns are carefully expressed and genuinely focused on sporting fairness. But the long history of female athletes being abused for “not being feminine enough” means that all fair-minded people should be wary of negative attitudes towards Semenya. The problem is particularly pronounced with regard to black women. In addition to sexism, the insults inflicted on other great sportswomen such as Serena Williams suggest that racism may also be a factor.

Some athletes have left little doubt that it is. Poland’s Joanna Jozwik finished fifth in the Olympic final won by Semenya and reportedly said she was the “first European” and “second white” to finish the race. The Russian 2012 Olympic gold medallist, Maria Savinova, is another who has made sneering remarks about Semenya’s appearance.

Savinova has since been disgraced and banned after having been exposed as a cheat who participated in Russia’s massive state run doping programme. That is the sort of person everyone involved in athletics should concentrate on drumming out of the sport. Not persecuting women like Caster Semenya for being the way they were born.

Caster’s father, Jacob’s, emotional response to the abuse his daughter received when she first appeared on the global sporting scene was to say “she is my little girl. I wish they would leave my daughter alone”. As a father of three girls, I can sympathise with him. It is time to stop the verbal dissection of Caster Semenya’s body and grant her the respect due to every human being.

More about the author

About the author

Paul Knott began his working life in a hut on Hull's King George Dock before globetrotting for two decades as an unlikely British envoy. His "instructive and funny" (Alan Johnson MP) book about his experiences, "The Accidental Diplomat", is out now.

He is also the Chief Foreign Correspondent for the Sabotage Times and contributes to publications such as The Telegraph, Forty-20 and When Saturday Comes.

All that travel has failed to shift Paul's inherited old Labour instincts.

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