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caster article part 1

caster article part 1 - A REPORTER AT LARGE_f EITHER/OR...

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Unformatted text preview: A REPORTER AT LARGE _f EITHER/OR Sports, sex, and the care ofC'cm‘er Semenya. BY ARIEL LEVY en people in South Africa say “Limpopo,” they mean the middle of nowhere. They are referring to the northernmost province of the country, along the border with Botswana, Zimba- bwe, and Mozambique, where few peo- ple have cars or running water or oppor- tunities for greatness. The members of the Moletjie Athletics Club, who live throughout the area in villages of small brick houses and mud-and-dung huts, have high hopes nonetheless. One day in late September, twenty teen—age athletes gathered for practice on a dirt road in front of Rametlwana Lower Primary School, after walking half an hour through yellow cornfields fiom their homes, to meet their coach, Jeremiah Mokaba. The school’s track is not graded, and donkeys and goats kept walking across it to graze on the new grass that was sprouting as the South African win- ter gave way to spring. “During the rainy season, we can’t train,” said Mokaba, a short man wearing a brown corduroy jacket with a golden Zion Christian Church pin on the lapel. “We have no- where to go inside.” For cross—country, Mokaba and his co- coach, Phineas Sako, train their runners in the miles of bush that spread out be— hind the track, toward the mountains in the distance. The land is webbed with brambles, and the thorns are a serious problem for the athletes, who train bare— foot.,“Theyrun on loose stones, scraping them, making a wound, making a scar," Sako, a tall, bald man with rheumy eyes and abig gap between his two front teeth, said. “We can’ t stop and saywe don’t have running shoes, because we don’t have money. The parents don’t have money. So what must we do? We just go on.” The athletes and their coaches apolo- gized for not having a clubhouse inwhich to serve tea. They didn’t like talking out in the wind and the dust. There was music playing down the road at a brick—fiont bar, and chickens squawking in people’s front yards, where they are kept inenclo- sures made out of tree branches. “The most disadvantaged rural area,” Sako said, laughing a little and stretching his arms out wide. “That is where you are.” The fastest runner in the club now is 'a seventeen—year-old named Andrew who recently became the district cham- pion in the fifteen—hundred-metre event. The average monthly income for black Africans in Limpopo—more than ninety- seven per cent of the local population— is less than a thousand rand per month, roughly a hundred and thirty—five dollars. (For white residents, who make up two per cent of the population, it is more than four times that amount.) “I thinkl will go to the Olympics,” Andrew said, with conv1ction. Joyce, a tiny girl in a pink sweater who What is the ultimate dgfereme between a man and a woman ? Semenya’s mother [midi epirrure (flier daughter. mrlmffifiww—Wfl”w‘Ljiffig‘mfirWiEH—mpogfiiJ-E; is eighteen but looked much younger, was similarly optimistic. "I wantto be the world champion,” she said, her voice so soft it was almost a whisper. “I will be the world champion. Iwant to participate in athletics and have a scholarship. Caster is making me proud. She won. She put our club on the map.” Caster Semenya, the current world champion in the eight hundred metres, was a member of the Moletjie Athletics Club until a year ago. She was born in Ga—Masehlong, a village about fifteen miles from the track, and she was, Coach Sako said, “a natural.” Even before Seme- nya left Limpopo for college, in Pretoria, she had won a gold medal in her event at the 2008 Commonwealth Youth Games, in Pune, India, with a time of 2:04, eleven seconds behind the senior world record set by the Czech runnerJarmila Kratoche vflova in 1983. “I used to tell Caster that she must try her level best,” Sako said. “By performing the best, maybe good guys with big stomachs firll of money will see her and then help her with schooling and the likes. That is the motivation.” He added, “And she always tried her level best.” Semenya won another gold medal inJuly, in Mauritius, at the Afiican Junior Athletics Championships, lowering her fime by a remarkable seven and a half sec— onds, to come in at 1:56.72. This beat the South African record for that event, held by Zola Budd, and qualified Semenya for her first senior competition, the 2009 World Championships, in Berlin. Semenya won the eight—hundred- metre Title by nearly two and a half sec— onds, finishing in 1:55.45. After the first lap of the race, she cruised past her com— petitors like a machine. She has a power- ful stride and remarkable efficiency of movement: in footage of the World Championships, you can see the other runners thrashing behind her, but her trunk stays still, even as she is pumping her muscle-bound arms up and down. Her win looks effortless, inevitable. “Even when we were training, I used to pair her with the males,” Sako told me. “I feel like she was too powerfirl for ladies.” It was a stunning victory for Semenya, for the Moletjie Athletics Club, and for South Africa. After the race, Semenya told reporters, “Oh, man, I don’t know what to say. It’ s pretty good to win a gold medal and bring it home.” (Her voice is surprising. As Se— menya’s father, Jacob, has put it, “If you speak to her on the telephone, you might mistake her for a man”) She continued, “I didn’t knowI could win that race, but for the first time in my life the experience, the World Championships . . .” She broke into a grin. “I couldn’t believe it, man.” Since the day Semenya broke Zola Budd’s record, people in South Africa had been talking about her. Semenya does not look like most female athletes. People questioned whether she was really a woman. Some even e—mailed the Intema— tional Association of Athletics Federa- tions, the worldwide governing body for track and field, with their doubts. Before Semenya was awarded her gold medal in “You don’t have 1‘0 schedule afillow—up visit. Yaujusz‘ came back wheneveryou want. ” Berlin, on August 20th, a reporter asked about a story that had been circulating at the Championships, that Semenya’s sex was unclear and that she had been re- quired to undergo gender—verification testing before the race. The I.A.A.F. confirmed the rumor, arguably in viola— tion of its confidentiality policies. (“The choice is that you lie, which we don’t like to do,” Nick Davies, the communications director, told the New York Times.) The story ripped around the world. Several of Semenya’s competitors in the race were incensed that she had been allowed to participate. ‘These kind of people should not run with us,” Elisa Cusma, of Italy, who came in sixth, said. “For me, she is not a woman. She is a man.” “Just look at her," Mariya Savinova, of Russia, who finished fifth, said. Semenya is breathtakingly butch. Her torso is like the chest plate on a suit of armor. She has a strong jawline, and a build that slides straight from her ribs to her hips. “What I knew is that wherever we go, whenever she made her first ap— pearance, people were somehow gossip— ing, saying, ‘No, no, she is not a girl,’ ” Phineas Sako said, rubbing the gray stub— ble on his chin.“ ‘It looks like a boy’— that’s the right words—they used to say, ‘It looks like a boy.’ Some even asked me as a coach, and I would confirm: its a girl. At times, she’d get upset. But, eventually, she was just used to such things." Seme— nya became accustomed to visiting the bathroom with a member of a competing team so that they could look at her private parts and then get on with the race. “They are doubting me,” she would explain to her coaches, as she headed off the field to— ward the lavatory. South Africa has eleven official lan- guages. The majority of people in Lim— popo speak the Pedi language, and many also speak English and Afi‘ikaans, which schoolchildren were required to learn under apartheid. Sako’s English was fluent but rough, and he frequently referred to Semenya as r‘he.” “Caster was very free i when he is in the male company,” Sako said. “I remember one dayI asked her, ‘Why are you always in the company of men?’ He said, ‘No, man, I don’t have something to say to girls, they talks non— sense. They are always out of order.’ ” On September 11th, Australia’s Daily Telegrapb, a tabloid owned by Rupert l\/lurdoch, reported that Semenya’s test results had been leaked, and that they showed that Semenya, though she was brought up as a girl and had external fe- male genitalia, did not have ovaries or a uterus. Semenya was born with unde~ scended testes, the report said, which pro- vided her with three times the amount of testosterone present in an average fe— male—and so a potential advantage over competitors. “I know what Caster has got,” her aunt Johanna Lamola told the Times. “I’ve changed her nappies.” Semenya’s father said, “I don’t even know how they do this gender testing. I don’t know what a chro- mosome is. This is all very painful for us—we live by simple rules.” Semenya did not cheat. She has not been evasive. It is very common for elite female athletes, who exert themselves to their physical limits as a matter of course, not to men— snuate. There’s no reason that Semenya or her coaches would have been alarmed if she were amenorrheic. ‘Maybe it’s be— cause we come from a disadvantaged area,” Jeremiah Mokaba said. “They couldn’t believe in us.” The I.A.A.F. has yet to inform Seme- nya whether she can continue running in international female competitions. I asked Sako what he thought would happen. . “Caster,” he said firmly, “will remain Caster.” ports have played an important role in modern South African history. A cru— cial part of the African National Con— gress’s strategy to end apartheid during “the struggle,” as everyone calls it, was to ’ secure international condemnation of South Africa’s government through boy— cotts and the banning of South African athletes fi'om all international competi— tions. Conversely, during the 1995 rugby World Cup Nelson Mandela managed to unite the entire country behind the Springboks, the South African team, which had been a hated symbol of Afii— kaner white supremacism. It was pivotal to his success inavoiding civil war and in establishing a new sense of national soli— darity. Sports are “more powerful than governments in breaking down racial bar- riers,” Mandela said. “Sport has the power to change the world. It has the power to insp'ne, the power to unite people that lit- . tle else has.” Sometimes it can unite peo— ple against other people. The South Afi'i- can Minister of Sport and Recreation, Kanin “Goad news+trieyfiund water cm #33 moon. ” Makhenkesi Stofile, has warned, “If the - IAAF. expels or excludes Semenya from competition or withdraws the medal, I think it would be the Third World War.” In August, when Semenya returned from Germany, thousands of cheering supporters waited to welcome her atO. R. Tambo Airport, outside Johannesburg. President Jacob Zuma met with her to ofi'er his congratulations, as did Nelson Mandela. Phat Joe, one of the most famous radio d.j.s in the county, was fired byKaya FM for suggesting on his show that Semenya might have testicles. Lolly Jackson, the owner of a chain of strip clubs called Teazers, put up an enormous billboard in a suburb of Johannesburg picturing a naked woman lying flat on her back above the words “No Need for Gender Test— ing!” Jackson subsequently claimed that the billboard had nothing to do with Se- menya, but he sent her lawyers, at the fin-n of Dewey 8C. LeB oeuf, a check for twenty thousand rand. “I thinkit is the responsibility of South Africa to rally behind this child and tell the rest of the world she remains the hero she is and no one will take that away from her,” Winnie Madikizela—Mandela, an err-wife oMandela’s and a recently elected Member of Parliament, was quoted as saying in the London Telegraph. “There is ' nothing wrong with being a hermaphro— dite. It is God’s creation. She is God’s child.” By contrast, the African National Congress Youth League, a division of the African National Congress, issued a state- ment saying that it “will never accept the categorization of Caster Semenya as a hermaphrodite, because in South Africa and the entire world of sanity,such does not exist.” ' The African National Congress is part of the Tripartite Alliance, with the South Afiican Communist Party and the Con- gress of South African Trade Unions. This year’s meeting of the Congress hap— pened to coincide with Heritage Day, and many of the hundreds of delegates who assembled at a conference center outside Johannesburg were in traditional tribal dress. Winnie Madildaela—Mandela wore aXhosa turban and cape. A representative fi'om the police and prison workers’ union, wearing nothing but a loincloth made from Springbok pelts and a Swazi neck— lace of red pompoms, mingled with fellow union members at the back of an enor- mous auditorium, where delegates were debating the items of the day: whether to THE NEW YORKER, NOVEMBER 30. 2009 4-9 support the legalization of prostitution in time for the soccer World Cop, which (No blacks turned white, or vice versa.) Taxonomy is an acutely sensitive sub- South Africa will host in 2010, and ject, and its history is probably one of the whether to pass a resolution in support of Caster Semenya. The sessions are meant to evoke the African tradition of villagers gathering to share opinions on local matters. Everyone gets to speak, though men speak much more than women. The prostitution ques— tion was examined from every angle: some were concerned about “the downgrading of our women by capitalism”; others felt that every source of income was desper— ately needed and that sex workers, like ev- erybody else, deserved the protection of a union. After several hours, the delegates decided that what was needed was more discussion. The South African Minister of Women, Children, and Persons with Disabilities, Noluthando Mayende— Sibiya, went to the lectern dressed in red Xhosa regalia to speak about “the issue of our young star, Caster Semenya.” Every- one applauded. “She is our own,” May~ ende—Sibiya said. "She comes from the working class.” The crowd blew horns in support, and some people ululated. “You cannot be silent! The human rights of Caster have been violated,” she con- cluded. The resolution passed with un- usual alacrity. South Africans have been appalled by the idea of a person who thinks she is one thing suddenly being told that she is something else. The classification and reclassification of human beings ' has a haunted history in this country. Starting with the Popu— lation Registration Act of 1950, teams of white people were en— gaged as census—takers. They usually had no training, but they had the power to. decide a per— son’s race, and race determined where and with whom you could live, whether you could get a de» cent education, whether you had political representation, whether you were even free to walk in certain areas at certain hours. The categories were fickle. In 1985, according to the census, more than a thousand people somehow changed race: nineteen whites turned Colored (as South Africans call people of mixed heritage); seven hundred and two Coloreds turned white, fiftyIndians turned Colored, eleven Colored turned Chinese, arid so on. 50 THE NEW YORKER, NOVEMBER 30, 2009 reasons that South Africans—particularly black South Africans—have rallied be- hind their runner with such fervor. The government has decreed that Semenya can continue running with women in her own country, regardless of what the I.A.A.F. decides. . South Africans have compared the worldwide fascination with Semenya’s gender to the dubious fame of another South African woman whose body capti— vated Europeans: Saartjie Baartman, the Hottentot Venus. Baartman, an orphan born on the rural Eastern Cape, was the servant of Dutch farmers near Cape Town. In 1810, they sent her to Europe to be ex- hibited in front of painters, naturalists, and oglers, who were fascinated by her unusually large buttocks and had heard rumors of her long labia. She supposedly became a prostitute and an alcoholic, and . she died in France in her rind—twenties. Until 1974, her skeleton and preserved genitals were displayed at the Musée de l’Homme, in Paris. Many South Africans feel that white foreigners are yet again scrutinizing ablack female body as though it did not contain a human being. Mayende—Sibiya has asked that the United Nations get involved in Semenya’s case, and I asked her what she thought it could do. “I would like to see it getting more information hour the I.A.A.F.,” she said over lunch at the Congress. ‘We wrote to the I.A.A..F. to ask a number of questions, including what precedents informed the action that it took on Caster. Why pick up on her? What were the reasons? The I.A.A.F. has not responded, and that to me raises questions on how it con- ducts business.” Mayende—Sibiya is a big, warm woman, a grand- mother and a former nurse, who hugs everyone she meets. She sighed. “There is a lot that has gone wrong in this process.” he I.A.A.F. has behaved erraticaily on the issue. On November 19th, the South African Ministry of Sport and Rec— reation announced that the I.A.A.F. had said that Semenya could keep her medal, but the I.A.A.F. refused to confirm this. Its president, Lamine Diack, was sched— uled to visit South Afiica several weeks ago to talk to Semenya and to representa— tives of the government, but he cancelled his trip at the last minute. In late October, I got in touch with the I.A.A.F., with questions about Semenya, and received a form—letter reply (dated September 11th) that it would not comment on the case until after its council meeting, at the end of November. Then, a few hours later, Nick Davies, the director of communica— tions, wrote back by e—mail: Two things triggered the investigation. Firstly, the incredible improvement in this athlete’s performance . . . and more bluntly, the fact that SOUTH AFRICAN sport Web sites were alleging that she was a hermaphro- dite athlete. One such blog (from sport24. co.za) stated, “caster Semenya is an interest- ing revelation because the 18 year old was born a hermaphrodite and, through a series of tests, has been classified as female." With this blatant allegation, and bearing in mind the almost supernatural improvement, the I.A.A.F. believed that it was sensible to make sure, with help ofA.S.A., that the athlete was negative in terms of doping test results, and also that there was no gender ambiguity which may have allowed her to have the benefits of male hormone levels, whilst com- peting against other women. ASA. is the abbreviation for Athlet— ics South Africa, the national governing body in charge of track and field. The group’s president, Leonard Chuene, who was also on the board of the I.A.A.F., and had been in Berlin for the Champion- ships, told reporters when he returned, “We are not going to allow Europeans to define and describe our children.” South Africa would have no part in tests con— ducted by “some stupid university some- where,” Chuene, who also happens to be from Limpopo, said. “The only scientists I believe in are the parents of this chil .” He claimed to be shocked by the way that the I.A.A.F. had treated Semenya, and he resigned from the board in protest before he left Berlin. (A week later, Chuene wrote the I.A.A.F. a letter saying that his resignation had been hasty, and asked to be reinstated.) In fact, Chuene was not only aware of the Berlin tests; he had authorized them, and, at the urging of the I.A.A.F., he had also had Semenya tested before she left Pretoria. On August 3rd, the I.A.A.F.’s anti—doping administrator, Dr. Gabriel Dollé, had sent an e-mail to Harold Adams, A.S.A.’s team doctor, citing the Web-site posting that Nick Davies men— _ tioned to me, which alleged that Semenya is a “hermaphrodite . . . classified as female.” Dollé asked Adams if sex verification had been conductedmor ought to be. (Debora Patta, the host...
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