Did you know that Edith Cummings was the first female athlete to appear on the cover of Time magazine? This was on August 25, 1924, and heralded a major step in women’s athletic history.
The vast majority of us remain blissfully unaware of who this exceptional woman is and what achievement led to her fame and stardom. She was the 1923 US Women’s Amateur Golf Champion.
Though, 92 years later, most South Africans and much of the global sporting community are aware of exactly who Mokgadi Caster Semenya is and what she represents in the sporting community in South Africa. Born in 1991, just 25 years old and from the small town of Polokwane, she took us by storm. She currently holds six gold medals, three of them arising from the 2016 African Championships that took place in Durban and another gold from the 2016 Rio Olympic Games, since she began her athletic career in 2008. Four gold medals in one year.
Caster sprinted into the headlines after her convincing victory in the 2009 Berlin World Championships. As a country we should have been proudly showering this incredibly talented young champion with praise and glory. Instead she became the subject of ridicule, humiliation and the subject of invasive public speculation into her gender. I cannot speak for all, but I as a South African feel deeply embarrassed by our country’s shabby treatment of one of our athletic superstars.
Is it that outrageous that a woman can display such excellence in her performance in sport? I can't ever remember public investigations being conducted when our male athletes brought home gold.
While all professional athletes are subject to rigorous drug testing, this is all done, as it should be, in private.
One’s medical history, status and medical conditions are confidential and should not be the subject of press speculation. Despite being a public figure, this contravened her constitutional right to both privacy and human dignity.
The likes of Cameron van der Burgh, Chad le Clos, Ryk Neethling, Roland Schoeman and even our new legendary athlete Wayde van Niekerk have never been subject to such ridicule.
Athletics, sport and other physically demanding activities, I believe, are vastly male dominated and we do not display an equal amount of pride and tribute to the excellence of South African female athletes. To reiterate this point, in 2009 Wilfred Daniels, who was Semenya’s coach with Athletics South Africa (ASA), resigned because he felt that ASA “did not advise Ms Semenya properly”. He furthermore apologised for personally having failed to protect her from the embarrassment and public discomposure to which she was subjected.
German car manufacturer Audi have recently been vastly criticised for awarding Olympics 400m gold medallist Wayde van Niekerk a brand new R8 luxury sports car worth a whopping R1.8 million but not doing the same for his counterpart, Semenya, who also brought home gold in the 800m Olympics. Caster Semenya took to social media and put out a quote to her fans by the late great Theodore Roosevelt stating that “comparison is the thief of joy". Caster's humble nature, natural grace and dignity remains an example to us all.
Caster’s journey has been an incredible one, especially in the face of adversity, and I use her as an example when I encourage South Africans to give praise when praise is due. Our sporting heroes, all of them, whether male or female and of any race, are our national treasures and should be treated as such. They are our heroes and our ambassadors to the world and should not be treated like laboratory animals.
Pakistani activist Malala Yousafzai, known mainly for human rights advocacy and for the equal treatment of women, is the youngest ever Nobel Prize laureate.
She said: “I raise up my voice – not so I can shout, but so that those without a voice can be heard… we cannot succeed when half of us are held back.”
Many would deem this a fairly feminist piece, but feminism isn't about making women strong. Women are already strong. It's about changing the way the world perceives that strength. I use Caster Semenya as an example to all women out there empowering themselves, not only in the sporting arena but academically and in the broader sense. The road is long, but the journey is worthwhile.
* Sabina Essa, an admitted attorney, attended Wits University and graduated in 2013