South Africans on Twitter Defend Caster Semenya Against U.S. Media

The South African middle-distance runner heads into the first round of the 800m event with an entire nation behind her.

South Africans on Twitter are rushing to Olympian Caster Semenya’s defense as the middle-distance runner sets out to win gold and smash world records in next week’s 800m event. Since 2009, the 2012 Olympic silver medalist from a small village in Limpopo has been front and center of a debate over the ethics and science of gender in the running world.

A hashtag, #HandsOffCaster, began trending in response to a pair of articles published this week by American media: one in Sports Illustrated, “Is it fair for Caster Semenya to compete against women at Rio?”, and the other a New Yorker piece titled “Caster Semenya and the Logic Behind Olympic Competition.” The articles coincided with Friday’s official start of athletics competition at the Games.

In the first of the two pieces, SI senior writer Tim Layden speaks with individuals in athletics and science about the history of intersex athletes at the Olympics and the current controversy surrounding Semenya’s dominance. Layden summed up his findings with the following sentiment:

“So it is that Caster Semenya runs in Rio, racing for a gold medal, a young woman from rural South Africa chasing a record that has stood for decades. It should be the simplest of challenges, yet it is not simple at all. Instead it asks that you decide, in the most fundamental way, who we are as humans. And who we will be.”

Meanwhile, in the first of an ongoing series discussing track and field competition at the Rio Olympics, New Yorker editor Nicholas Thompson asked Malcolm Gladwell whether Semenya should be allowed to compete as a woman. Gladwell responded matter-of-factly with “of course not.”

“Not a single track-and-field fan that I’m aware of disagrees with me,” said The Tipping Point author. “I cannot tell you how many arguments I’ve gotten into over the past two weeks about this, and I’ve been astonished at how many people fail to appreciate the athletic significance of this. Remember, this is a competitive issue, not a human-rights issue. No one is saying that Semenya isn’t a woman, a human being, and an individual deserving of our full respect.”

Gladwell cited what he refers to as the “logic of competition.” “Semenya is equipped with an extraordinary and anomalous genetic advantage,” he said. “The previous policy of international track was that she could compete as a woman if she took medication to lower her testosterone to ‘normal’ levels. That restriction has now been lifted. And so we have a situation where one woman, born with the biological equivalent of a turbocharger, is now being allowed to ‘compete’ against the ninety-nine per cent of women who have no such advantage.”

Both articles are drawing the ire of Semenya’s fans on South African Twitter. The hashtag, #HandsOffCaster, seems to have emerged in August 2012, during the London Summer Games. It’s flared up periodically since then, and it’s been trending all day.

South Africa’s Minister of Sport, Fikile Mbalula, called on South Africans to show their support. “Here is Caster Semenya Twitter handle @caster800m – let’s shower our athletes with support #teamCaster” he tweeted.

One Twitter user said “Black women shouldn't have to hold back their greatness to coddle insecurities & bigotry.”

“These Americans are all over Caster Semenya, they must focus on most of their athletes who uses drugs to enhance performance,” wrote another.

“You strike Caster you strike us all” said Twitter user Fatima Hassan.

“Fantastic to see #HandsOffCaster is top trending. Any apologists for the bigoted anthropologising and trolling of her body will be blocked,” wrote analyst Eusebius McKaiser.

For Soccer Laduma journalist Joe Crann, the issue is simple: “She’s a woman.”

American sports journalist Kate Fagan joined South Africans in defending Semenya. In a column for ESPN, Fagan wondered why the South African runner is still on trial. “We have no idea on what point of the biological sex continuum each female athlete resides, and who might have what advantages. And without that knowledge, the people currently ringing the alarm bells on Semenya are actually engaging in discriminatory behavior,” Fagan pointed out.

As Semenya heads into the first round of the 800m on Wednesday one thing is clear: she’ll do so with an entire nation behind her.

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