Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Caster Semenya to bear South Africa's flag at opening ceremony

South Africa is your feel-good nation for the 2012 Olympics.

First it was the reveal that double-legged amputee Oscar Pistorius would get to run at the Games, and now it's been announced that Caster Semenya will carry the country's flag during the opening ceremony Friday night.

Why's the latter so important and so symbolic?

You might need a refresher on the hell Semenya's been through to appreciate the gesture her country is affording her.

Semenya is the 5-7, 21-year-old middle-distance runner who's been dogged -- and "dogged" is putting it lightly, really -- by allegations, suspicions, mockings and outcries that she ... is a he. Or was. Or could've been something in between. Physical appearance paired with impressive times at the 2009 World Championships (1:55.45 was the fastest time for a female that year) led to many people -- including fans, some otherwise disinterested parties, and even those inside the world of track and field -- calling for Semenya to take a gender test. She was an uncomfortable, world-wide-known case the track and field world was, unfortunately, all too familiar dealing with. For decades the sport has faced the problematic and deceptive cases of men participating as women. Semenya was received as the latest fraud even before she was proven innocent female.The International Association of Athletics Federations' (IAAF) plan of action against Semenya was received as sloppy, publicly insensitive and certainly racist in some circles. Global track and field has had its number of embarrassing moments over the decades; Semenya's unwanted public crusade was among the most blundering.

To be fair, some of the skepticism was in bounds. As Semenya began to rise in the international track and field realm in '08 and '09, her finishes kept getting better and better. The ascension of her career and reduction of her times called for investigation, if for no other reason than such spurts of accomplishment are inevitably tied to drug use these days. Semenya's gold medal in the 800 meters at the '09 World Championships in Berlin sparked everything, but it was actually announced before said race that she would undergo a gender examination. In 2011, after her name and private parts were cleared by the IAAF, she won silver in the same event in Daegu, South Korea.

To be clear, Semenya wasn't merely perceived as a transgendered athlete looking to compete in the Olympics, which is still an uncomfortable subject with years to go before regularity becomes commonplace at the Games. Nope, this was a competitor who was picked apart by discriminatory eyeballs because she looked too much like a man, and thus, she must be a man. A man competing in a women's sport, illegally and immorally winning medals. Aside from the vital benefits of becoming a world-class runner, puberty did Semenya no favors. Her face and body molded into form that most around the world couldn't definitely discern into the appropriate appearance of a woman.

Semenya could only wait and be herself. Could only abide by the skeptics and let her body be poked, scoped, groped and tested for dope -- because if she was indeed a she, then certainly some performance-enhancing drugs were part of the picture, right? Yeah, that line of thought was parallel to the disbelief over Semenya's sex.

Imagine getting your identity and sex challenged to that end. Imagine your worst day during grammar, middle or high school -- the one time you were picked on the hardest, past the point of rolling tears -- then multiply that by all the articles and vocal doubters from Africa to America to Asia and back again.

Once her name was cleared, she began growing her hair out, an act which signaled public mandate more than personal choice.

Look more like a girl now, please, so we're all a little more comfortable when we watch you run.

Praise to South Africa for picking Semenya to grip its flag and walk proudly among the world's best female athletes later this week. Pistorius would've also been a fine choice, but here, we've got a decision that was three years in the making. The woman has gone through a worldwide embarrassment that, to me, is much more emotionally trying than Pistorious' battle.

Pistorius has had to prove to people he runs like a regular man; Semenya had to prove she didn't.

The common thread: All along, South Africa stood by its prodigal track talents. Even during Semenya's 11-month ban from regulated track competition (as she endured tests, cleared tests, and ultimately was allotted to run with females again), her country never wavered.

Still, unfortunately, she has dissenters today. I shutter to think what Twitter will look like the moments before, during and after her 800-meter runs in a couple of weeks. Semenya is the favorite to win the event in London, and idiot fans who don't know her backstory will once again create a conversation only capable of being held in the confines of the shallow end of the gene pool -- the opposite side of which Semenya resides.