ADRIAN EPHRAIM: The strength in being Mokgadi Caster Semenya
Caster Semenya doesn’t just run. She strides with every sinew in her body, pulling at her limbs in ways that make her move faster than all before her. On the track, she runs away from her competitors - with authority. But in life, she runs towards her enemies.
Being Semenya means being many things to many people, yet the only version of her is the truth she has lived from her first day on this earth.
“I [first] walked at seven months [old],” Semenya explained on Wednesday at the Standard Bank Top Women Conference. “That would explain to you why I’m fast. I grew up around boys; most of my cousins are boys. Bullies, to me, never existed because how I responded to them was rough.”
During the conference, Semenya revealed the various parts of herself that endeared her to many millions around the globe, across racial lines and belief systems. There is not much we as people can agree on in this world, but Semenya is one of them.
On stage, there was Caster the child of Dorcus and Jacob Semenya, Caster the global athletics star, and Caster the activist for women empowerment and the catalyst for social change. They’re heavy titles to bear, even as broad and capable as her shoulders and brain are. In front of the country’s most successful women and in the eyes of young schoolgirls in attendance, Semenya showed just why she was capable of all meanings assigned to her. She’s a troublemaker to some, a history maker to others, and an icon to millions more.
Growing up in the Ga-Masehlong village near Polokwane as the fourth of six children, Semenya inherited her sporting genes from both her parents. Her mother was a talented netball player, and father a decent football player who possessed a wicked turn of pace. Jacob had hoped his daughter would play football for the women’s national team one day.
“From [the] age [of] four, I played football. I was a diski queen. My dad thought I’d play for Banyana, but I disappointed him because I had to sell my soccer boots and bought spikes. He was surprised, but I told him ‘I’m chasing my dreams. I’m not going to be told what to do this time. Athletics is my destiny. It’s something that fulfils me and makes me feel free. When I’m on the track, I forget about everything’.”
From an early age, it was apparent that Semenya had what it took to realise her greatness. She competed above her age group because of her superior ability. “When I was eight I would run against 10-year-olds. I always felt like I destroyed kids my age. When they went home, they would feel demoralised, so I decided to compete with older people. Back then I was a sprinter. I ran the 60m and the 50m. There was always one girl who would give me a hard time, so obviously, I had to work hard. When we were in the bush with my cousins we would run on the sand, so that when I competed on the flat course I would be untouchable. Going back to school I became one of those athletes who were promising,” she explained.
“Moving from the village to primary level, obviously, people tried to bully me, and then they realised this one is a visionary, she does not really care. That empowered me a lot. But there were always questions. They said ‘We don’t want a girl in the men’s team because you are better than them, because you have something that they don’t have. You score more goals, you get recognition wherever you go'. Then they start questioning, ‘Are you really a girl?’. So I walked naked in the changing room… yes, because you have to clarify everything.”
"That’s when they realised ‘she is a girl, she’s just muscular and has a deep voice’ and I can do the things that they cannot do,” Semenya said matter of factly.
Semenya’s fight against the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) is on hold for now, and it denies her an opportunity to compete for another 800m World Championship title in Doha next month. But the fight itself has turned her into a symbol of resistance against an authority that holds her career in its hands. It’s a battle 28-year-old Semenya doesn’t intend fighting forever, but she still has enough left in the tank to make IAAF president Seb Coe and co sweat a little bit more.
“A month before world champs [in 2009] I ran a world-leading time. People said it was out of nowhere, but for me, it wasn’t out of nowhere… There were a lot of questions, but I didn’t know what they were saying. You get questioned and you get examined, and then you get told that you might not run. I said to the president of Athletics South Africa at that time, ‘Whoever is going to stop me from running, has to drag me out of the track. I’m in control. I’m the architect of my career. I built my career and my life. No one is going to tell me what to do in terms of decision making. Remember, I was still 18 then,” she said with some satisfaction in her voice.
It’s that fighting talk that we’ve grown accustomed to hearing from Semenya. Her strong words rest in the ears of a global audience of men and women pushing back against oppressive establishments, conformity and its inherent patriarchy.
“Now I think about how I am going to construct my story, and how I am going to respond to the negativity. Silence yourself and observe. Let them do the talking, and then you act. From a young age, I already knew how I wanted to live my life. It was easier for me to get on the world stage and handle all of that.”
“Of course, I get hurt, but I get hurt for two seconds and then think, ‘it’s not worth it’. I think more of being me, being Caster and trying to motivate the young ones, because if I can’t control myself I know there are young girls who want to achieve something in life. But what I’m selling to them is not fake. Whatever I’m saying on social media is me, it’s completely me.”
Semenya’s act of triumph and activism have largely involved the movement of her body, breaking records by seconds, and defying the critics one race at a time. But at that conference on Wednesday, she sat still - for nearly an hour - to impart the same message of fearlessness, hard work and living truthfully, because being Caster means being all things while being herself, which history will show will be her greatest triumph of all.
“My parents have raised me well. They’ve never questioned what I do or my feelings or how I see life. They accepted me for who I am when I was still young. This is why I’m tough, why I’m fearless and why I do not care about what other people think. Those are things that built me into what I am today.”
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Adrian Ephraim is the sports editor and deputy news editor at Eyewitness News. Follow him on Twitter on @adrianephraim