The River City Renegade

Caster Semenya: Why are so many hung up on her looks?

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Be honest. It isn’t Caster Semenya’s ridiculously high testosterone levels that bother you. It’s her physical appearance. Also her voice. That’s the rub.

Caster Semenya

Caster Semenya

If Semenya looked and sounded like, say, Lynsey Sharp or Melissa Bishop, the volume on the rhetoric re her perceived (or real) “unfair advantage” in female foot racing would be turned down. Sharply. It would seem less of a witch hunt and more of a reasoned conversation that grants equal consideration to both pro and con.

But Semenya doesn’t look like Sharp or Bishop, does she?

Ignore, if you can, the hue of their skin. The British and the American runners are lean and lithe, blonde-haired and blue/green-eyed. A photo shoot for the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue is more likely than someone in a lab coat knocking on their doors and demanding they piddle into a bottle and lift their skirts to confirm they are not boys. Semenya, meanwhile, is ripped and rawbone, her raven-black hair styled in tight corn rows and her eyes threatening and as dark as midnight. SI photogs won’t be quick to ask her to slip into something skimpy. The boys in the lab coats, meanwhile, already have stood on her doorstep and have the samples.

That’s why many of the people who watch Semenya run don’t see her run. All they see is someone different. Someone who doesn’t belong. Someone who doesn’t fit into the pigeon holes of their cisgender template.

Lynsey Sharp and Melissa Bishop

Lynsey Sharp and Melissa Bishop

The jury in the court of public opinion seemingly has found Semenya guilty. But of what? She isn’t cheating, not by any measure. Her ability to arrive first at the finish line of an 800-metre race isn’t the product of a pill in a bottle or the point of a needle poked into her butt cheeks. Nor is her strength. She has naturally elevated testosterone levels for a female, and her training regimen is of a rigidity befitting an athlete of Olympic-champion loft. So, she’s guilty of? Looks. Or, based on societal stereotyping, lack thereof.

Society doesn’t demand that its female champions be pretty, but it is more accepting if they are. Think Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova.

Anyone ever question Sharapova’s femininity? As if. She’s long, lean, lithe and cover girl gorgeous. What about Williams? Accusations of manism began to dog her not long after she and sister Venus arrived on the tennis scene as teenagers with beaded hair. As recently as two years ago, the president of the Russian Tennis Federation, Shamil Tarpishchev, referred to Serena and Venus as “the Williams brothers.” He added it was “frightening when you look at them.”

The focus always seemed to be on Serena’s physical package—the hands, the forearms, the biceps, the shoulders, the back, the neck, the jaw, the forehead…all too big, too masculine. The fits of pique, anger and aggression? The threatening gestures? That’s the way male athletes behave, not women. Better check that Williams girl’s testosterone levels. Must be too high.

Only in the past 20 months, as her Grand Slam championship total rose to near-unparalleled achievement, has Serena gained wide-spread acceptance and admiration. There now is more discussion about her loft in tennis and sporting lore than her looks.

I fear a similar happily-ever-after ending is unlikely for Semenya.

Serena Williams

Serena Williams

I suppose had the 25-year-old South African finished well up the track and not struck gold in the women’s 800-metre final at the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro last weekend—leaving a flock of frustrated and, yes, embittered “real” females in her wake—the temperature of the conversation would be lower. But as long as Semenya is ruled eligible to compete in female foot races, we’ll hear considerable braying about a “man running against women” and an “unfair advantage.” (As if those flippers that swimmer Michael Phelps calls feet aren’t unfair and an advantage.)

In Semenya’s case, I don’t think it’s about what’s fair or unfair. It’s about insisting that females fit into society’s one-size-fits-all schematic. She doesn’t look the part, therefore she shouldn’t be allowed to play the part.

That, of course, is a ridiculously shallow interpretation of a definition.

As was the case with Serena Williams, much of the slander directed toward Semenya’s appearance is cruel, mean spirited and ignorant. It also means that the South African shall forever be running with an asterisk. There always will be a “ya, but” placed behind any mention of her accomplishments.

Apparently, it’s okay for a female to run, leap, swim, throw, kick and punch “like a man,” just as long as she doesn’t “look like a man” while doing it.

Sigh.

Patti Dawn Swansson has been writing about Winnipeg sports for 45 years, longer than any living being. Do not, however, assume that to mean she harbors a wealth of sports knowledge or that she’s a jock journalist of award-winning loft. It simply means she is old and comfortable at a keyboard (although arthritic fingers sometimes make typing a bit of a chore) and she apparently doesn’t know when to quit. Or she can’t quit.
She is most proud of her Q Award, presented in 2012 for her scribblings about the LGBT community in Victoria, B.C., and her induction into the Manitoba Sportswriters & Sportscasters Association Media Roll of Honour in 2015.

 

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