Expedient outrage and the Semenya tests
It’s time to slow down, take a deep breath and think about what’s at issue in the Caster Semenya furore. The story unfolded with astonishing speed.
In just a few short weeks her name moved from being virtually unknown to being on everybody’s lips.
Her dramatic victory in Berlin was followed quickly by reports about sex tests and a hero’s welcome back home.
And then a bombshell report in Australia’s Daily Telegraph claimed that tests ordered by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) had uncovered some hermaphroditic features.
Since then, the story has been marked by noisy sensation, expedient outrage and opportunism. That original report, available on the Telegraph‘s website is worth revisiting.
It is overly dramatic, claiming in apocalyptic tones that ‘world athletics is in crisis” over the revelation. There’s no explanation of why this should amount to a crisis. The report relies entirely on a single unnamed source, who is said to be ‘familiar with the IAAF inquiry into Semenya”. No indication is given that the report itself was made available, no corroboration was sought.
Only in follow-up reports by other news organisations is a measure of confirmation from other sources to be found. The Telegraph also relies heavily on some vigorous South African bashing: it says the IAAF is being held back from taking action against the athlete by fears of a South African backlash.
In a particularly irrelevant reference, the report says: ‘While the IAAF are treating the Semenya case as a health matter, with her eligibility to compete in women’s athletics very much a secondary issue, the same South African politicians who denied Aids was a problem in their country are now blindly standing behind their new queen of the track.”
The professed concern for Semenya here is paper-thin. In my view, the public interest in the case did not weigh sufficiently strongly to justify the invasion of privacy of the Telegraph‘s report.
Privacy is not an absolute right, and public figures often have to accept that their lives become public knowledge to some degree. In many cases, there is a kind of trade-off: the status of celebrity may involve a loss of privacy, but it brings some significant perks.
There are different kinds of celebrities. There are those who assiduously seek the limelight, constructing a career and livelihood out of their position. They lose sympathy when they expediently try to switch off the glare of public attention the minute it becomes uncomfortable. The rest of us tend to feel that if you want to live in the limelight, you have to accept that it is not always going to be flattering.
There are others who are thrust into prominence. While an athlete such as Semenya derived some benefit from her sudden celebrity status, she can’t be accused of having sought it out. It came on the back of her extraordinary achievement on the athletics track. People in this position can claim a greater right to privacy than professional celebrities.
It is also worth remembering that she is just 18. Her age must be a factor in deciding how much of her private life can legitimately be exposed to public view.
Then, there are differences between various kinds of private information. The revelations made about Semenya are of an extraordinarily intimate kind. There can’t be much that is more invasive than to have one’s sexual organs the subject of newspaper headlines. It’s not as if she’s a man who pretended to be a woman to get an unfair advantage on the track.
There has been a huge outpouring of patriotic support for Semenya. Politicians and Athletics South Africa (ASA) have virtually frothed at the mouth in their defence of her against the outside world, and specifically the IAAF—even though ASA, at least, needs to answer some hard questions about its handling of the issue.
The media have participated in the campaign, opening SMS lines to allow people to express their support. That’s all very well, but one wonders where that solidarity with the girl from Limpopo was when the Australian report surfaced. It might have been difficult to ignore the claims completely, but surely they could have been handled more carefully.
Some of the initial reports tried to hide behind outrage at the leak of the information, but the veneer was thin. The medical details were blown up about as large as possible. This story will burn brightly for a while and then die.
Journalists will move on, as will the ASA and the politicians. Semenya will be left to pick up the pieces, reconstruct a sense of self and build a future that will always involve answering the question: weren’t you the one who —?
The Mail & Guardian’s ombud provides an independent view of the paper’s journalism. If you have any complaints you would like addressed, you can contact me at [email protected] You can also phone the paper on 011 250 7300 and leave a message