/ 13 August 2012

Caster and Oscar: Heroes to the end

Caster Semenya at the Olympic Games in London.
Caster Semenya at the Olympic Games in London.

We live in a dark and daunting world much of the time, if news coverage is anything to go by. I have friends who sometimes confess that they simply can’t follow the news. If it’s not confusing, it’s deeply depressing. Sometimes it’s both.

But something special happens around big sporting events. We watch the audience statistics and we see it. Suddenly people who couldn’t tell their hockey from their handball were deeply invested in the intricacies of Caster Semenya’s 800m race strategy.

In a moment we all cared for these young men and women who wore our country's colours with far more quiet dignity and gravitas than any politician. The bluster of our parochial and petty politics gave way to a story of the human spirit, of determination and discipline, which took a different form in every athlete.

No wonder South Africans are more interested in the news during these events. Young athletes who we wouldn’t have recognised on the street became household names. Bert le Clos was the country’s most famous father, sobbing into his South African flag and boasting of his "beautiful boy".

The four rowers who surprised everyone by winning their race at the last minute clung to each other, singing our national anthem in a moment beer commercials can only dream of. And we all groaned in unison when relay runner Ofentse Mogawane collided with a Kenyan runner Vincent Kilu, stumbling to the ground and leaving his teammate Oscar Pistorius distraught on the sidelines.

Ordinarily the cynic in me would scoff at the notion of sports bringing us together. But beyond the politics, big money, and power games of much of the organised sports world, there is something special that keeps me hooked: South Africa’s athletes.

In an industry where perfect bodies, big sponsorships and fame are the norm, our athletes are remarkable in their brokenness. Brokenness isn’t a quality you would associate with a winner. It implies struggle, humiliation and defeat. But it also implies redemption and a victory that doesn’t need to be awarded a gold medal for us to recognise it as such.

One of the few times I can look at my country with tears of pride in my eyes is when we turned to these broken heroes and heroines, not with shame but with unabated joy and pride. I loved the fact that we chose brokenness over perfection: Pistorius was our flag bearer at the closing ceremony who carries below his knees his tale of struggle. 

A double amputee before the age of one, he made history in competing against able-bodied athletes. And our flag bearer at the opening ceremony had a similar tale of loss and struggle.

Semenya had to deal with devastating humiliation while still in her teens as the world dissected the most intimate part of her being in casual conversations and snide remarks in a saga over her gender.

Stopped from running and under enormous pressure, both psychologically and financially, she came back to claim silver at the Olympics with an ease that suggested she could without difficulty win gold next time.

They have two things in common, Semenya and Pistorius: they were made to run. And when they run there is something breathtaking about them that transcend their struggles, their critics and even their loss, should they be defeated at the finish line and subjected to petty jibes about their strategy.

When they run labels like cripple, hermaphrodite and others that are worse lose their meanings. Instead I am reminded of a famous line from the multiple award-winning film Chariots of Fire, where Olympic competitor Eric Liddell turns to one of his own critics and says: "I believe God made me for a purpose, but he also made me fast. And when I run I feel his pleasure."

And suddenly it doesn’t matter how many medals we have or where we rank along other countries. What matters is that South Africa isn’t just a country of the past which produced a Nelson Mandela and a Desmond Tutu.

We’re the kind of country that can produce an Oscar Pistorius and a Caster Semenya: two young people who carry tales of hurt and loss, but ultimately live out stories of personal victory and triumph of the human spirit, which had the nation running by their side every step of the way.

  • Verashni is the deputy editor of the M&G Online. You can read her column here, and follow her on Twitter here.