At 6’5″ tall, it is apparent that Usain Bolt has a stride length much greater than that of the average sprinter. This seems a bit unfair to me, so I’m thinking that what we should do is chop a couple of inches off his legs. Oh, too harsh? Ok, well, what if we hobble him? Or sedate him? That should make him slower, right? Make the races more fair?
And what about that Simone Biles? It seems pretty obvious to me that she is totally taking advantage of being short and powerful. And that can’t be right or fair can it? I mean I’m 5’8″ and have been abandoned by my abs, but surely we should stretch her or something to level the playing field in the pursuit of Olympic Gold?
Meanwhile, there is South African runner, Caster Semenya. Apparently, she’s got testosterone levels in her blood that give her at least a 3% advantage over the other female athletes. 3%? In a 800m race, that gives her a 4 second headstart over her rivals – that’s hardly fair is it? Surely, if we’re going to chop off Usain’s legs, and stretch out Simone, we should definitely operate on Caster, or at least medicate her. You know, to make it more fair…
Because using a naturally given gift for an advantage is so outrageous, right?
Well, I’m pretty sure that I don’t need to point out that the answer is no.
Obviously it is never acceptable to artificially enhance the performance of athletes, which is why the Russian team competing in the Olympics have found themselves so significantly depleted. But the advantage that Caster Semenya has over her competitors is no more cheating than the relative statures of these other gold-grabbing athletes. So why is she under such scrutiny? And why is the rhetoric around her story so vitriolic?
The behaviour of Semenya’s fellow athletes at the end of the 800m final last week stank of the jealously aimed at the smart girl/ the pretty girl/ the talented girl in a story that has played out in every school playground since the dawn of time. The mean girls exclude the threat to their perilous position at the top of the tree. They bad-mouth her and try to bring her down because she has shaken their branches and reminded them that perhaps they ain’t all that, after all.
Never, however, has this unedifying scene been played out under such a magnifying glass as it was last week when Semenya competed, amidst a cacophony of controversy, in the Olympic 800m final.
The photo taken at the end of the race shows Melissa Bishop of Canada, and Lynsey Sharp of Great Britain coldly ignoring the out-stretched hand of Caster Semenya and should embarrass them for excluding a fellow athlete, for what?
Being better than they are?
To complain that racing against Semenya is somehow unfair is like me opening the pages of a fashion magazine and complaining that the waif-like models, wafting around exotic locations in threads worth more than my car, should not be allowed to use the height, metabolism and symmetry that nature has gifted them to earn their wedge. Anyone sound in mind should quite rightly dismiss me as an envy-consumed hater incapable of loving the body she is in, perhaps at the same time as casting a withering glance in my direction as I main-line the Jaffa-cakes. So why should whining athletes be treated any differently when they complain that racing against Semenya is “hard”.
Equally bonkers is the attribution of Semenya’s success solely to the fact that her body produces more testosterone than the average female’s. For years she has trained her mind and body to run at great speed, with huge stamina, and to disregard this is narrow and self-serving.
It also seems fair to suggest that Semenya’s successful bid for gold, amidst a vitriolic media storm that has disregarded her basic rights to privacy, has demonstrated a level of grit and determination which should in fact be admired. Imagine having the validity of your status as an athlete, a gold medal winner, and a WOMAN, questioned to the degree that Semenya’s has been. Then imagine going out under the gaze of that world’s eye to compete, knowing that there are people to your left and right who don’t want you there. More than that, who think you don’t DESERVE to be there.
If there were such a thing as a gold medal for mental strength, Semenya could surely add this to her haul.
And what is it we are really scrutinising here? Semenya has been cleared of cheating. She has not artificially enhanced her performance as an athlete – she has simply taken advantage of a gift nature (or God, if it suits you) has given her. In that case, perhaps what is really fanning the flames of the inferno surrounding her is that here is a woman who is simply not feminine enough.
She has a strong jaw and forehead, a deep voice, narrow hips and a muscular frame. If you listen to some corners of the media, she has female genitalia but does not have any working reproductive organs. So let’s sweep aside the questions about how fair it is that such personal, possibly untrue, details are being used as bar-room banter, and let’s disregard her innocence, her upbringing and her belief that she is a woman. Because here is a female who is not soft enough, not slow enough, who is not woman enough.
Frustratingly we once again find ourselves judging and measuring a woman not by her abilities, but by her appearance. Despite Semenya proving her innocence, people remain discomforted by her presence on the track with the women who don’t defy the gender norms. The women who are softer, rounder, and far closer in appearance to the average woman on the street are simply easier to identify with and accept.
But this is the odd thing. Since when has underlining just how average the human body can be, been the aim of the Olympics? Sport at a global level is about extra-ordinary feats performed by extra-ordinary people who make the average person stop their daily lives to glory in the wonder that is the human body. A human body that, were it average, simply could not keep up.
It is fair to say that perhaps Semenya would not have won Gold without the extra testosterone, but this is a mute point – we will never know. But surely one thing is for sure – we don’t want our athletes to be “normal” or “ordinary”, so it is time to leave Semenya alone to be exactly what we want from our Olympians: extra-ordinary.