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25 Aug 2016 00:00
Silver medalist Francine Niyonsaba (Burundi), gold medalist Caster Semenya and bronze medalist Margaret Nyairera Wambui (Kenya) of the women's 800m of the Rio 2016 Olympics. (Patrick Smith/Getty)
After Caster Semenya had run and won the final of the women’s 800m at the Rio Olympics, there was a sense of celebration online. For once the podium was dominated by three African women of varying hues.
Semenya, Francine Niyonsaba and Margaret Wambui stood triumphantly before the world, holding their medals aloft.
But that moment of triumph and history was derailed by the actions of Great Britain’s runner, Lynsey Sharp.
In a tearful video, Sharp insinuated Semenya is too difficult to compete against because of her naturally elevated levels of testosterone.
One thing missing from her tearful entreaty to “people at the top” was that she finished sixth overall. Polish middle-distance runner Joanna Jozwik finished fifth in the same race, saying later she “feels like a silver medallist”. Jozwik controversially announced that she was proud to have finished as the “first European” and the “second white” in the race, finishing behind Semenya, Burundi’s Niyonsaba and Kenya’s Wambui.
The 33-year-old record for the women’s 800m is still held by Czech runner Jarmila Kratochvílová, whose physique was not scrutinised in the same way as Semenya’s was. Examination of her was related to performance-enhancing drug use. Kratochvílová’s gender was never questioned.
Her physical appearance was never debated. Other competitors never voiced their concerns about the difficulty of competing against her or called it unfair.
Semenya is not the first black female elite athlete to be the subject of such intense invective and analysis. Back in 2009, a sports columnist penned a scathing rant about Serena Williams’s body, likening her posterior to food and saying he wasn’t attracted to her because of her size.
In 2014, a high-ranking tennis official from Russia referred to Serena and her sister Venus as “the Williams brothers”. Fellow player Caroline Wozniak, in an impersonation of Williams, stuffed her shirt and skirt, mocking her body.
A New York Times article from July 2015 about body image in competitive tennis spurred a debate about the destructive ways in which the media discusses and dissects Williams’s body. It wasn’t focused on her musculature; it was about the way black elite athletes are continuously body-shamed and compared with white women, no matter what they have accomplished. The focus of the vitriol is seldom about their sporting achievements and more about being examined, like bacteria in a petri dish.
The descriptions and policing of black women athletes’ bodies, especially Semenya’s, intersects at hell’s doorstep, at the juncture where misogyny, racism and transphobia meet. What’s worse is the complicity of other women, namely white women.
When Jozwik pointed out that she was the “first European” and “second white”, it was not by coincidence. The words she used were a fluorescent neon sign: “second white” automatically denotes her belief that whiteness is superior and deserves to be the focus and subject of conversation. She didn’t say first woman – that would have been too easy to catch out. Referring to her skin tone was a way to discount the talent and skill of the African women on the podium completely.
In addition, Sharp’s post-race tears during her interview with the BBC solidified what black women across the globe have always known. When it comes to the crunch, white women will separate themselves with an “us versus them” mentality.
The entitlement these two women showed in their utterances speaks volumes about the role and complicity of white women in upholding and furthering misogynoir.
Misogynoir – a portmanteau that combines “misogyny” and the French word for black, “noir” – was coined by queer black feminist Moya Bailey to describe the particular racialised sexism that black women encounter. Women face misogyny, but women of colour face racialised misogyny.
Williams is caricatured, the descriptions almost anthropological, but no one treats well-built past players such as Amélie Mauresmo or Martina Navratilova with venom or makes baseless criticism of their bodies. It is silently understood that their bodies are finely-honed instruments and they looked that way for them to be masters of their craft.
This critique is seldom about their health or welfare. It is a dissonant echo of a long-held belief rooted in eugenics. Black women are not women, we lack the “delicacy” and “femininity” personified and attributed solely to white women throughout history.
Sports are about athletic prowess, about pushing mental and physical barriers – not an athlete’s desirability. Worth is not measured by how sexually appealing or palatable her body and skin tone are.
It’s not enough to point out that Semenya can “look like a woman” by putting her on the covers of magazines in body-con dresses and make-up. This isn’t about the fact that Semenya isn’t curvy, svelte or dainty. It’s about the fact that she isn’t white.
Kiri Rupiah is the Mail & Guardian’s social media editor
Kiri Rupiah is the Mail & Guardian’s online editor. Read more from Kiri Rupiah
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