The Curious Case of Caster Semenya: Hottentot Artemis by Chris Thompson
It has been a week since the news broke, and I am still seething over the International Association of Athletics Federations decision against South African athlete Caster Semenya. Ten years after their original findings, after many more competitions and a long fight in courts, the IAAF won their decision to make someone alter her body for their comfort. They ruled that due to her body producing more testosterone than usual, she must take hormones to reduce her levels in order to compete in any races under their jurisdiction. Since this ruling, two more runners have been dropped from the Athletics Kenya team, citing this ruling as the reason. There is a good chance that even more athletes from Africa and Latin America will be affected by this ruling before year’s end.
There are multiple reasons why I am seething about this. Caster Semenya has been working her entire life to be the best athlete she can be, and she has the medals to prove it. She who came under scrutiny after she improved her naturally skilled performance. In 2009, the IAAF obliged her to be subjected to a medical examination because her improved times at the 25m and 800m races “usually arouse suspicion of drug use”. Perhaps that, or perhaps an 18 year old woman improved her form and training. Their report and findings, that should not have been published were somehow leaked to the public. I am always suspicious of an international governing body that somehow lets an individual’s private information go public without their knowledge. This is not a hack and a security breach of thousands; this is one person’s private information in which they forced her to partake if she wanted to keep her career.
Back in 2016 when Rio de Janeiro hosted the Olympic Games, Lynsey Sharp, a British runner who lost the 800m to Semenya, tearfully lamented, “It was difficult to compete against Caster Semenya and other hyper-androgenic athletes after the rule to suppress testosterone levels was overturned.” She also ignored Semenya and others to embrace two European runners in the race. Sharp had previously claimed that “there were obvious athletes with heightened testosterone” and that there were “two separate races being run.” The problem is that in that 2016 race, Lynsey Sharp finished 6th place. She would not even received Bronze for 6th place. You might get a paper clip. Had Semenya not been allowed to compete back then, she still would have placed 5th, which might yield a safety pin. There is nothing wrong with lamenting a loss, but to put that loss on someone else who was simply doing what she was supposed to do to excel is a bit pathetic. It reminds me of Maria Sharipova’s “beef” with Serena Williams, a beef that Serena Williams did not know she was participating in (incidentally, Serena Williams has been the target of criticisms of her body as well). Sharp has since finished 8th in London World Championships and 14th in Australia Commonwealth Games. So perhaps “Becky with the Bad Pace” should focus more on training than blaming others for her losses.
Lynsey Sharp is not the only person to make comments about Caster Semenya and her bout with the IAAF. Many men, including black men, with no credentials to discuss the topic have been discussing Caster Semenya’s looks. People have been discussing how muscular she is compared to other women. She is an Olympic runner, though. She is SUPPOSED to be muscular. Her gender has always been under scrutiny. Fox News miscategorized her as transgender. The IAAF itself added salt to the wound recently by stating that Semenya could still participate in racing so long as she competed in men’s events. Mind you, though Semenya has 3 times more testosterone than the average woman, that is still less testosterone than the a man’s. All this controversy, and it is still questionable that naturally occurring testosterone actually gives anyone an athletic advantage. People with higher testosterone have lost, and people with lower testosterone have won.
The most frustrating thing about this is that we have seen this before, in many ways. The most obvious case is Saartjie Baartman, the Khoikhoi woman who was taken to Europe and examined by “scientists” and then put on live display for her natural features. Baartman was nicknamed “Hottentot Venus”, and was literally poked and prodded by the public as she was paraded naked around Europe. She was over sexualized and described as a savage prone to prurient behavior all because of her body, nothing she said or did. Even in death she got no respect, as she was stuffed and put on display.
Black women bear the brunt of these indignities. White and European “standards” have been the governing body on what is an acceptable body. Black ballerinas are often told they are too “thick” or dark or muscular. Black women teachers are often admonished for what they wear to class, even if they are completely covered up. Black women will regularly be blamed for harassment they receive based on how much skin they are showing, not just by white folks, but also by black folks playing respectability politics. Black hair is often governed and punished and used as an excuse to fire or not hire qualified professionals. Companies would rather you pay hundreds of dollars a month to chemically burn your hair straight to the detriment of your own health than let to wear your hair in a natural comfortable way. This is all legal, since the Supreme Court declined to hear a challenge to this. But let’s be honest: how much faith do we have that 50 year old white men and Clarence Thomas would see how discriminatory this is?
“White and European “standards” have been the governing body on what is an acceptable body”
I hope Caster Semenya does not give up her fight. Whether she takes hormone suppressants or decides to compete with men, I hope she smokes anyone she runs against. There is one thing extraordinary black folks are good at doing that can’t be stopped by any white governing body: that is excelling despite the obstacles put in their way.
About Chris Thompson
Chris Thompson is an engineer, writer, comedian, and activist who made Rochester, New York his home in 2008. In addition to his role as Contributor for 540Blog , he currently writes the Chronicles of Nonsense segment for the Almost Tuesday show on WAYO-FM 104.3, and regularly posts and writes on his own on Instagram and Twitter at @ChronsOfNon.Additionally , Chris is a Food Writer for Rochester City Newspaper. His blog is www.chroniclesofnonesense.com