Opinionista Siya Khumalo 9 May 2019

Caster Semenya: A question about feminism’s end-game

Analyses of the IAAF’s misogyny/racism/queerphobia against Caster could account for how the mainstream institutionalised sport is only marginally concerned with the public benefit we ascribe to it. The tax and branding exercises justified by our fanaticism end up buffering those who should be exposed.

According to the LA Times’ Jim Peltz, “athletes’ pay seems immune to the laws of economics”, defying inflation, expansion and recession. A freshly signed NBA player makes over $100,000 more than the US president. What has this to do with the IAAF’s abominable attempt to prescribe testosterone blockers to Caster Semenya? A lot.

Should analyses on injustices against black, female and/or LGBTI athletes unpack this “immunity to the laws of economics”? Sport funders get to be named sponsors and take advantage of tax laws to help buffer their wealth portfolios from the real-world vicissitudes their businesses contribute to.

Here’s a cold business fact: The survivors of climate change catastrophes (to which many industries contribute) aren’t about to emerge from flood waters, like airbrushed athletes, to endorse brands that spend squillions on disaster relief.

But the damaged Notre Dame cathedral attracts $1-billion worth of pledges before repair quotes are drawn up. In response, some say:

The discipline to be at the top of one’s game should be rewarded.” But we’ve never used this argument to enhance the incentive for teachers to the financial extent we enhance it for athletes. So it’s not discipline as such that impresses us. Justice isn’t sexy.

Analyses of the IAAF’s misogyny/racism/queerphobia against Caster could account for how the mainstream institutionalised sport is only marginally concerned with the public benefit we ascribe to it. The tax and branding exercises justified by our fanaticism end up buffering those who should be exposed.

Our athletes just condemned gender-based violence,” we fawn in response to campaigns, never admitting that sports sponsors (for example, the purveyors of alcoholic beverages) have their products inside domestic abuse perpetrators during the fact — the frequency of which matches the cycles of sports matches.

Some say: “Representation matters. Black girls need to see role models to see anything’s possible.” But such an argument works for raising (well-remunerated) black female presidents, scientists and architects better than it does for increasing black female participation in sport; used for the latter, it simply shifts the question of institutionalised sport’s real social value.

Sport promotes national pride,” we say. I’ve wondered about this. Imagine one company single-handedly sponsoring matches annually. Imagine most spectators are indebted to that company, the fees and interest they pay floating said company and matches. Is this national pride, or bread and circuses?

Siya, your argument against funding sport could be used against arts,” some have said. But I’m not for dropping public and private sport funding to zero. Think of this: Some movies are created with the intent to spark specific social conversations that prevent suicides and hate crimes — and they achieve exactly that. So it’s possible to rationally, scientifically quantify the value of leisure activities, including sport, and proportion funds accordingly.

The line between public and corporate citizens’ funds is permeable, so such vigilance would prevent the creation of an “alternative economy” through which the most powerful remain “immune to the laws of economics” they’ve squeezed the rest of us into.

Buy a sports team, get a tax break!” advised Justin Fox, Bloomberg’s business opinionist.

Others say: “Sport can unite people, stimulating admiration for people outside their immediate social groups — remember Mandela and Francois Pienaar in 1995!” But we must also remember Ashwin Willemse in 2018. Commentator Doug Adler allegedly likens Venus Williams to a gorilla.

People compartmentalise their admiration for black athletes from racist, sexist, anti-poor and queerphobic views by extending that admiration only to the edge of the sports field or, worse, by ‘monkeyfying’ and ‘circusifying’ “strong, virile” black athletes for performing feats that, if done by white athletes, would be described as “graceful” and “strategic”.

A racist’s projections on sport are as real for him as whatever you project on sport, be it your sense of ownership, belonging and pride. They’re as real as racists’ pretence to non-racism, which, in a rugby fanatic who’d rather the unbanning of the ANC than miss the match, is transactional enough for what he wants, but not transformative enough for what black people need. Sport, often credited with shifting views, simply solidifies and disguises them.

I’ve also heard it said: “Sport gives boys a channel for masculine energy”, which has the self-fulfilling echo of “boys will be boys”: boys are socialised into activities that contribute nothing to their societies except the implicit promise that our boys are fast and strong enough to “protect” us from the enemies our (male) leaders, made in fights for dominance.

In You Have To Be Gay To Know God, I used soccer as an illustration of this military training unto heteronormative hyper-masculinity: Boys bond over “scoring” in their opponents’ goalposts and preventing their own goalposts from being scored into. Through its boys/athletes/warriors, a society can make “the other” its slaves, its servant-girls, its b***hes. This gender essentialisation is why lesbian soccer players are often raped, why women’s sport is underfunded relative to men’s, and why the IAAF has come after Semenya.

In Caster Semenya, we’re running from injustice. But what if injustice shaped the running track in the first place? Feminism’s endgame, where the sport is concerned, may prove more interesting and ambitious than anything that happens on sports fields. Where do I sign up as a commentator? DM

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