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Gender Questions Swirl Around South African Athlete

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Gender Questions Swirl Around South African Athlete

Gender Questions Swirl Around South African Athlete

Gender Questions Swirl Around South African Athlete

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South Africa's Caster Semenya won the gold medal at the 800m race at the World Track & Field championships in Berlin. But now the International Association of Athletics Federation is threatening to take the gold medal from the 18-year-old runner amid questions surrounding her gender. Columnist Pinky Khoabane, who writes for The Sunday Times in South Africa explains the resulting uproar in South Africa.

JENNIFER LUDDEN, host:

Now to sports in South Africa.

This week former South African president Nelson Mandela met with that country's track, Caster Semenya. He congratulated her on her recent victory at the 800 meters race at the World Championships in Berlin. But now the International Association of Athletics Federation is threatening to take the gold medal from the 18-year-old runner if she fails a gender test.

This challenge to the young runner's gender is causing uproar in her home country. Some fans are blaming what they call Western stereotypes of what a woman should look like. On Tuesday, hundreds of cheering supporters greeted the star athlete at the airport as she returned to South Africa.

(Soundbite of cheers)

(Soundbite of horns)

Unidentified Woman: She's our golden girl, Caster Semenya.

LUDDEN: Joining us now from Johannesburg to talk about this is columnist Pinky Khoabane. She writes the weekly column "On Fire" for The Sunday Times in South Africa.

Welcome.

Ms. PINKY KHOABANE (Columnist, The Sunday Times): Hello. Thank you very much for having me, Jennifer.

LUDDEN: So this week your column is headlined, "That's Our Girl You're Messing With" and you suggest this whole debate has some racial undertones. What do you mean?

Ms. KHOABANE: We can't make sense of this. I mean there are so many girls on that tracking field who, as I say in that column, mostly formerly Eastern Europe and they are just so muscular. We don't understand why our girl was chosen, this past week, for her looks, you know?

LUDDEN: You say that women continue to be expected to look a certain way in today's world, even on the sports field and if they don't, they're castigated and harassed. And you do site other examples of African athletes specifically having this problem arise, right?

I mean do you think there is a problem with perceptions of female appearance specifically for Africans?

Ms. KHOABANE: Well, I suppose on the athletic field it now seems it's the Africans that are being targeted. But I wrote about your own Judge Sotomayor...

LUDDEN: Sonia Sotomayor, the new Supreme Court justice.

Ms. KHOABANE: Yes. I actually wrote about her and the fact that there were so many people on the right who were talking about her looks. And to say women can not go on being judged by the way they look. You know there's got to be a way we are judged for other things, for our capabilities, what we can do and really ad value to work, home, anywhere without being judge according to our looks.

LUDDEN: Have there not though in the past been similar debates over Eastern European athletes maybe even decades ago when, you know in the Olympics and gender was called into question?

Ms. KHOABANE: There has been and they have subsided. One example, for example in tennis, when we speak about Martina Navratilova, there's never been a day when she was questioned about her gender from how she looks, you know, and it's been accepted. This whole notion of the way women look and being questioned had subsided to a point, but we see it raising its head now and again over African athletes.

LUDDEN: Now sports officials are saying this is about a medical issue. They're not blaming Semenya for anything. They just say they want to see if there's something about her body that gives her an unfair advantage. Tell me about the reaction all this is causing in Africa? Why do you think so many are rallying to her defense?

Ms. KHOABANE: Because we just think it's discrimination, and we think discrimination based on her gender, but more than anything else, based on her race. So we are outraged.

LUDDEN: So Africans still have something to prove in the international scene where other countries have already been through the ringer on this?

Ms. KHOABANE: Absolutely, Jennifer. That's what we are outraged about. We are saying if her looks or her masculine body had anything to do with it, a lot of the girls on the tracking field should have gone down with her, should have also been tested. And it wasn't the case. She was the only one chosen.

LUDDEN: South Africa is known for being sports obsessed. Do you think the issue would have resonated as much if Semenya had not won that gold medal?

Ms. KHOABANE: No. It's not really about the gold medal. The timing also was quite cynical because I think she got into the athletic scene from around about January and until she had won the youth championships then people started questioning her.

You know it's almost like we are not expected to rise to positions of success and that's what is really upsetting us. On the day she was getting ready to compete for the gold medal, that's when these allegations really peaked and we are just saying somebody was out to outmaneuver her there, you know?

LUDDEN: Pinky Khoabane is a columnist for South Africa's The Sunday Times and joined us by phone from Johannesburg.

Thank you so much.

Ms. KHOABANE: Thank you very, Jennifer and thank you very much to your listeners.

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