It is high time to shake off the shackles of sport

By Cheryl Roberts Time of article published May 29, 2019

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CAPE TOWN – For too long white and European- centred sport has attempted to control blacks and Africans in sport, especially black sportswomen.

The decision by South Africa’s greatest athlete, Caster Semenya, to challenge a white and European- dominated sports body such as the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) is the most significant resistance by a black and African woman in sport.

And the decision by South Africa to appeal against the Court of Arbitration in Sport judgment is even more significant in that the male-dominated, European-controlled sports structures are being challenged by the African sportswomen they want to control.

Get this. They are not only being challenged and told they are unjust and wrong, but they are being challenged by a woman. Not only a woman, but a world champion - who is black and African.

I’ve said this and written this often. We must speak out, resist and challenge white, conservative and European- dominated sport when it seeks to impose its colonial, white male gaze on African sportswomen’s bodies.

We must challenge African sport not to agree with and support white male, European-dominated sport decisions, especially those aimed at controlling black sportswomen.

It’s encouraging to see South Africa’s national government and national sports structures, together with millions of South Africans, speaking out, especially on social media against the IAAF and Court of Arbitration in Sport (CAS) rulings.

But although we are challenging these European-centred sports structures, we are also facing our internal continental challenges with male- dominated African sport seemingly bowing to pressure from the white male, European gaze and decisions to decide who and what is a woman in sport.

I recall just a few years ago how South Africa, represented through women’s football, challenged some African women footballers “for not being women”, despite them playing in a women’s football tournament. Yes, our very own South Africa that is screaming at the IAAF and CAS, had SA sport also calling out African women footballers who seemingly didn’t fit the “woman footballer” image.

It happened at the 2010 African continental women’s football championship in South Africa. After SA lost to Equatorial Guinea in the semi-finals and missed a world cup qualifying berth, South Africa’s women’s football representation lodged a protest with Nigeria, calling out some of Equatorial Guinea’s women footballers.

The representative of the SA women’s football team at the time was horrendous in her “protest”; she called out the players as “intersex but not being girls”.

This is how The Guardian newspaper (November 26, 2010) quoted the South African sports official: “There was support (for the protest against Equatorial Guinea) today from the SA team, who lost to Equatorial Guinea in the semi-final. Fran Hilton-Smith, the SA manager, said: ‘I think they are probably intersex and they think they are girls. That’s the aspect that needs to be investigated’.

“Fifa has to come up with some specific medical gender tests to establish whether these players are intersex. If they have 100% testosterone that definitely gives them an advantage. They shouldn’t be banned but they should be helped.”

The attacks on black and African women’s bodies are horrendous, unjustified. Recent news about two Kenyan women athletes being left out of a Kenyan team because of perceived “high testosterone levels” is horrific to comprehend. Which men took this decision about the women’s bodies?

After the IAAF decision to proceed with its “higher levels of testosterone” ruling, it was only the athletics structure of South Africa, represented by Athletics South Africa that challenged, called out and spoke out against the proposed decision of the IAAF.

No other African athletics structure was as vocal or challenging. Africa’s officials, except for one South African male official, remained on IAAF committees and were shockingly quiet.

The onslaught against Africa’s women athletes is under way by those who seek to employ their power and define according to their white, male, European gaze the construction of a black woman’s body in sport.

Who is going to speak up for Africa’s sportswomen? We applaud and support the decision of African woman athlete Caster Semenya to challenge the world athletics structure. Here is a black woman athlete, resilient and fierce, fearless and brave, daring to take on the moneyed, conservative, male European-controlled IAAF.

In doing this, global 800m athletics champion Caster Semenya is acting for all women athletes, especially black and African, whom the IAAF daringly wants to control.

The challenge of a sportswoman’s body structure and make-up isn’t just happening in athletics. Its happened in Africa during continental championships. Again, we are reminded of the challenge and protests against woman footballers of the Equatorial Guinea women’s football team that won the African championship in 2008, but had to endure a protest from Nigeria who claimed not all their “women footballers were women”.

An Equatorial Guinea woman football player was forced to strip in front of CAF officials to “prove she was a woman”. SA was part of this protest and the de-humanising behaviour.

Africa’s sportswomen are talented. They are world, global and Olympic champions. They have varying and different body make-ups.

We must neither endure nor support white, European-centred, colonial-thinking men, together with colonised mentalities of African sports officials, deciding how and when they shall control African bodies in sport.

Fierce resistance, warrior action by all Africans and all of Africa is needed to counter and disrupt attempts to control the black and African woman’s body in sport.

Semenya is leading the resistance; we must stand with her and Africa’s sportswomen and know we are doing such because no black and African sportswoman must ever be de-humanised, controlled or objectified by those men who seek to control an African woman’s body.

Cheryl Roberts


* Cheryl Roberts is a sports activist.

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