Last month the International Amateur Athletics Federation (IAAF) decided to drop the 5 000m and 10 000m events from its lucrative Diamond League fixtures.
These two events are fixtures that Africans, especially Kenyans and Ethiopians, have dominated for nearly two decades. Of the 14 Diamond League fixtures that occur yearly, all but four take place in Europe, with the others hosted in Morocco, the United States, China and Qatar. Beyond the Olympics and World Championships, this series is the bread and butter of the world’s top athletes.
There’s no discrimination against Africans, claimed the IAAF’s chief, the now infamous Sebastian Coe, saying the changes were designed to make the competition more commercially lucrative. And the 5000m could still be run at individual meets — it just won’t be televised.
Beyond the prestige and the sense of accomplishment that elite athletes enjoy performing on the world stage, this is also a job that consumes the best years of their lives and ensures livelihoods. Competing in an event that only those present are likely to witness dramatically decreases sponsorship viability.
But we have come to expect discrimination from world athletics bodies. Witness the ongoing battle to force Caster Semenya off the track. Semenya is an exceptional athlete. When she runs, she wins. And she loves what she does.
But the groups meant to promote sport are trying to exclude her. Threatened by her dominance, they have resorted to constant prodding and probing over her gender. That has only worked to turn her into a sporting icon, thanks to her ability to time and again transcend the prejudices and discrimination by authorities — and others.
Recently she appeared to suggest her own way forward through this debacle, by successfully having a tilt at the 5 000m, which (for now) does not require her to undergo hormone therapy to reduce her testosterone levels.
What she has been forced into is a decision to be herself, or lose the right to do what she loves.
The IAAF has couched its reasoning throughout these sagas in words and phrases like “fairness” and “level playing field”.
In South Africa, this kind of framing has become all too familiar when an inclination for uniformity is realised, in the likes of hair policies at schools, access to a gym or recreational space or a job. Just as in these policies, the IAAF’s reasoning is laden with discrimination. Perhaps this is why, as a country, we have been so vocally united behind Semenya.
But this is not enough. With the stroke of a pen the IAAF, with the complicity of the Court of Arbitration for Sport, has potentially taken away the livelihood of not only Semenya but also the likes of Burundi’s Francine Niyonsaba, who finished second behind her at the Rio Olympics in 2016. And, as too many Africans (and women especially) know all too intimately, with it the association seeks to eviscerate their dignity.
Years from now, when history condemns the narrow-minded leadership of the IAAF and a mealy-mouthed apology is churned out, it will be too late for the careers and livelihoods being destroyed today.
As Semenya has so eloquently demonstrated, this destruction of exceptional talent cannot and will not be allowed. We will fight until we triumph.