Rod Liddle

Why I’ll keep cheering for Caster Semenya

She is not a cheat by any measure. And she has brought liberal and transgender illusions face to face with the real world

Why I’ll keep cheering for Caster Semenya
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An almost worldwide survey on penis length — the sort of thing I always read with a sense of trepidation and inadequacy — suggested that the countries boasting the largest of these flawed and devious appendages are all located in Africa. Especially West Africa, from the DRC down to the humid and still pristine jungles of Gabon. This suggests to me one of two things — either that the old racist cliché is absolutely true, or that Africans tell bigger lies than anyone else on the planet. Either or both of these explanations are likely to get me into trouble, so I suppose I’d better stop digging.

Thing is, I can’t fathom another answer. I should add, just in case you’re interested, that we Brits come exactly in the middle of the worldwide penis league — which is, I think, the right place to be. We clock in at an average of about 14cm, or a bit over 5in — which seems to me an eminently sensible length, neither the frighteningly robust nightstick you might encounter in Kinshasa, nor yet the pitiful, flaccid caterpillar which hangs forlornly between the legs of your Southeast Asians. No wonder the Thai men are always cross and their women yearn for fat German and elderly British tourists, shooting ping-pong balls from their lady gardens across the bar-room in order to attract a potential mate with a semblance of girth and length down below. China did not take part in the survey, perhaps fearing where they’d come in the table.

One African who does not boast about having a very large penis is the South-African gold medallist in the 800 metres, Caster Semenya. This is because Caster is a woman, probably. Certainly she identifies as a woman and competes as a woman and is built like a woman in everything other than her very high natural levels of testosterone; that is, her hyperandrogenism.

Caster has incurred the loathing of her rivals, especially her European rivals, because they believe her inherent manliness gives her an unfair advantage over them — which indeed it does. But it is not just the other runners who have it in for this exceptional athlete (who one might describe as intersex). The transgender lobby aren’t too happy either, and nor are the sports scientists. Whereas the human-rights activists are very much in favour of Caster Semenya — and this is why I find her case interesting. It is where liberal and transgender delusions come up against the real world.

At the age of 18, Caster won a gold medal in Berlin with a time of 1.55.45. However, subsequently she was subjected to a series of I daresay unpleasant investigations into her nether regions and also her levels of testosterone. The IAAF decided she had too much testosterone and set an upper limit on women competitors (of 10n.mol/L) and so Semenya underwent some sort of intervention to lower her levels. The consequence was that she ran more slowly.

Women run more slowly than men. Not because of the horrible patriarchal society in which they are relentlessly oppressed by men, but because their bodies are different. And in sporting terms, very much inferior. With her testosterone suppressed, Semenya was struggling to break 2.00.00 in her races: five seconds, a hell of a long time in sporting politics, and indeed in sport. An appeal was lodged with the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS), and the IAAF’s decision was overthrown, to the jubilation of human rights activists — and, I have to say, myself (for perhaps different reasons).

Last week in Rio de Janeiro Caster Semenya ran the 800m in a time of 1.55.28 and collected the gold. She will easily knock a few more seconds off that time in the future, certainly enough to set a new world record (the current one has stood since 1983). Those who trailed her bitched nastily after the final. Caster was left out of the various group hugs which, in these unremittingly emotional days, occur at the end of each race. In a rather heartbreaking scene, she tried to take part in the exchange of consolation and solidarity, but was coldly shunned. Cheat! And yet she is not a cheat by any measure.

The Olympics are not about level playing fields, be it in the relative amount of taxpayers’ money spent to achieve sporting excellence (step forward, Team GB!) or, even more obviously, in the physiology of those taking part. They are about exceptionalism, and exceptionalism of physique. We do not legislate against basketball players because they are unnaturally tall, and insist that the competition should somehow be rigged so that cheerful dwarves can compete on an equal footing. Any more than we legislate against Usain Bolt because, as a consequence of some fearfully fortuitous genetics, plus a lot of hard work, he is the fastest human being on the planet. Instead, we rightly laud his achievements. Caster Semenya has also worked very hard and her testosterone levels are just one of the lucky elements within her physique which have made her into a brilliant runner. For lots of reasons, she can run fast.

Of course we are familiar with female Bulgarian weightlifters from the 1970s who made Geoff Capes look epicene, frail and a bit lacking on the facial-hair front. And we are constantly reminded of the shocking doping scandals, especially that involving the Russ-kies. I suppose we should try to police un-natural means of enhancing performance, insofar as we can. But, though trans-gendered people may object, there is nothing remotely unnatural about Caster Semenya. Unusual, but not unnatural.

The sports scientists rail that the CAS decision could ‘rip apart the fabric’ of women’s sport. Calm down, please. All it does is allow women who are naturally a bit more like men than the majority of women to excel. We try to kid ourselves these days that exceptionalism doesn’t exist, that we are all equal, that everyone has a chance. But that is all a delusion. Well done to Caster Semenya for her victory in the 800m, and for showing us that the world is not a nice, fair place.

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