I have just come back from a television interview that focused on the psychological impact of the gender controversy that surrounds the young athlete, Caster Semenya. As one can imagine, this is a very sensitive and emotive issue.
The full extent of the emotionality for most South Africans (not to mention the political groups and sporting administrations that have got involved in the process), hit me as I walked into the broadcasting studio. As I waited for the interview, many people working behind the scenes that bring television into our homes, grabbed me to ask thought-provoking questions about what Semenya has to deal with and why the IAAF were being so cruel to her. I probably had 10 or so personal interviews before the ‘actual’ interview began that was eventually aired.
It is not easy to give a meaningful perspective in a 10 minute television interview, especially when you are being bombarded by specific questions that don’t flow naturally from one to the other. During the interview, however, I tried to explain that it was very traumatic for a young athlete to be caught in between organisations/administrations and political groups that were at war with each other and escalating the emotionality.
When the interviewer asked me why the IAAF were signalling her out, I stated that we as South Africans, should not take this personally since athletes are being tested regularly for drug abuse, hormonal levels and now in Semenya’s case, gender issues. Semenya is not the first case regarding gender, nor do I suspect that she will be the last. Testing is happening not only in athletics, but in other sporting codes as well. Unfortunately, this is the nature of modern day sport. Trust and honour no longer exist in professional sport. This is the harsh reality. Through the testing processes, sporting bodies try to ensure that fair play exists as much as possible; where physical, technical, tactical, mental and emotional skills are being pitted against each other to eventually determine the winner.
The unfortunate thing with Semenya was how the testing process unfolded and the finger-pointing that has occurred between the South African athletic authorities and the IAAF. In the process, confidentiality and ethical issues have been breached. And in the middle of this storm, is a young 18 year old athlete.
While watching her win the World Championship 800m, I was concerned at the way that she celebrated her victory, as well as how the spectators responded to her as she was celebrating her achievement. There was little applause from the crowd. Further, there was no interaction between fellow competitors and herself. There were no congratulations given. No hug or touch. There was an unease in the process. A feeling of being isolated. A sense that she was not-deserving and not-belonging. Unlike the other victorious athletes that went on a victory lap in celebration, Semenya disappeared from the stadium very quickly. She also did not give a post race interview.
Semenya is young and comes across as being somewhat naive. She has broken onto the international scene very quickly and has achieved exceptional results (her 800m win was easily achieved, about 2 seconds better than her nearest rival). This in itself, leads to suspicion.
When she arrives back in South Africa tomorrow, she needs space away from the media. She needs to be supported as well as protected from the pressures of personal interviews. I don’t think it is in Semenya’s best interests if we convey to her that she is a victim and that the world authorities are signalling her out to be persecuted. This is not an empowering perspective to offer her. A supportive, carefully thought out plan-of-action needs to unfold for her as she moves into the future. More specifically, the helping professionals that may be engaged to assist her, need to understand what her unique feelings and perspectives are of the unfolding process. More importantly, Semenya needs to make sense of her own feelings about what has occurred.
At this point of her young career she is faced with a lot of uncertainty. The quicker the testing process is done and the results known, the better for her. It is important that the gender issue gets resolved quickly, so that fellow competitors and competing nations know that there is a fairness and equality during competition, whatever international race she may enter in the future. Without this, Semenya will never be able to celebrate her achievements with the full joy that she deserves. Without this, she will remain isolated and will not be embraced by the global community. This will be sad. Her career (that is full of possibility) will not be able to become a reality that can be fully embraced by all, if it is clouded with suspicion and doubt.
This is going to be an emotionally taxing time for Semenya. We all need to be mindful of not escalating the pressures that she is already feeling.