Semenya laughs in the face of adversity and all the way into the history books

Caster Semenya became South Africa’s first black, female Olympic champion on Saturday night, setting a new national record in the process. BY ANTOINETTE MULLER

“I haven’t had fun in a while.”

That’s how Mokgadi Caster Semenya described the day where she won the 400m, 800m and 1500m all in one day. If that was fun, claiming a historic gold medal, South Africa’s tenth at the Rio Olympics, must have been extraordinary. 

Semenya, running in lane three, made a strong start. Somewhat surprisingly, Semenya took the early lead and as the field began to spread out, Margaret Wambui and Francine Niyonsaba both pushed her hard. But in the final stretch, Semenya came from two meters behind to two meters ahead and set a new national record of 1.55.28, winning by a distance rarely seen in this event, and the fastest time in the world this year.

With her trademark shoulder dusting at the start of the race, Semenya looked as cool and composed as she had all season and everyone across South Africa who had set several alarms to watch their golden girl had fun with her. 

Earlier this year, those words were a poignant statement from a young woman who has always loved to run. Like many athletes, she has described her chosen discipline as something that makes her feel free. But over the course of her career, there have been times where she must have despised it. Semenya’s story is well known and no longer warrants being regurgitated, not in a moment like this.

But Semenya has never liked being famous. In an interview with The Guardian in 2011, she admitted that people constantly stopping her for pictures and autographs “used to irritate her”. She doesn’t like famous people. She doesn’t like fame. She didn’t even have posters of her running heroes on her bedroom walls – despite dreaming of one day being just like them.

That steely determination and the ability to disconnect from fame as well as an incredible mental toughness, along with rare talent, has brought Semenya endless success and will ensure that she becomes one of the greatest 800m athletes of all time.

Through her career, there has always been an almost childlike innocence about her, even though she has been through the kind of stuff that would add on ten years to your life.  And while she now stands tall as a global icon for women, she is still just a kid who loves to run and a kid who wants to make her parents proud. Breaking records and winning titles is what she dreams of doing.

And that is exactly what Semenya has done for the past six years. And the world has loved watching her, even if there are people who have tried to make her stop.  In a rare interview with the BBC in 2015, she said: “I cannot stop running because of people.”

In the lead up to the Games, there have been countless opinions circulating over whether it is “right” or “fair” for her to run, but all that whining increasingly resembled empty vessels. The science, we can appreciate, is complicated. 

But just for this win, we should shelve science, because them’s the rules and Semenya is competing fair and square. Her trials and triumphs have come to represent something much bigger than just sporting excellence. Sport mirrors society and Semenya’s journey should force us all to take a long, hard look at ourselves.

This victory is vindication and liberation from all the struggles and adversity she has had to endure. This is redefining ticking the neat little box of what it means to be a woman. And not just any woman: a successful black woman. This is flipping the script on the middle-class notion of what femininity is supposed to be.

This is justification for all the hours of sacrifice. The time on the track, when everyone was sleeping. This is reward for the time spent getting back on the track and back into shape despite injury biting at her heels just as she was reaching her best.

It’s two fingers up at the humiliation she had to endure as a teenager and a sideways, ‘so what’ shrug for those who made her the unwitting poster girl for a scientific debate that seems impossible to really settle, despite there being thousands of other athletes like her. They just aren’t as damn fast as her.

This win is for every woman who has been told she should act more ladylike. Any woman who has been told she talks too loud, doesn’t smile enough, she’s too butch, shouldn’t wear her hair short. It’s for any woman who has had somebody try to define what she can and can’t do and how she should or shouldn’t do it.

And this win is for every black woman who is strong in ways that most of us can only imagine. Who continue to challenge the status quo loudly, powerfully, disruptively. It’s a win for every woman who has to be strong every day in the face of adversity because of the colour of her skin. Those women who often keep on running, without the power of a nation behind them. And it’s a win for every South African who knows many of these challenges all too well.

More than anything else, this win is for that kid who lives to run and whose dreams have now come true. It’s a hat-tip to coach Jean Verster, who has sacrificed, believed and fought for his champion.

Semenya will be a reluctant hero. She is just a kid who likes to run and have fun. Luckily, that’s all that’s expected of her to carry the mantle for the millions she represents.  All we ask of you, Caster, is please, please keep on having fun. DM

Photo: Caster Semenya of South Africa celebrates after winning the women’s 800m final of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games Athletics, Track and Field events at the Olympic Stadium in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, 20 August 2016. EPA/ANTONIO LACERDA


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