In Berlin last week, Caster Semenya was one of the few gold medallists who struggled to find a smile on the podium. But the 18-year-old who returned to South Africa yesterday was remarkably confident despite having become perhaps the most controversial figure in the world today. She even managed a shy smile, which momentarily lit up her undoubtedly boyish face, as she faced a huge crowd all eager to assure her, with no particular evidence but a great deal of warmth, that she was not only a great champion but also definitely female in gender.
But there were signs to raise a doubt or two even in the breast of the more impartial sports fan. Semenya's voice was deep and mannish, and there was much discussion of her muscular build and facial hair. Reporters had travelled up to her village where her grandmother told of how she sacrificed her tiny pension to send her to sporting events when all the other girls just wanted to play. Boys from the village recalled her keenness for football, rating her a "good defender".
By yesterday, however, the gender issue had given way to something unexpectedly ugly. Well before she ever set off on that amazing run in the 800m final, which she won by the proverbial country mile, Semenya's case had been hijacked by left-wing elements of the ANC who saw it as a heaven-sent opportunity to fan a few anti-white flames and embarrass a government which already stands accused (by the Communist Party, part of Jacob Zuma's power base) of "ugly white chauvinistic attitudes (which) persist in many places, sometimes brazenly and sometimes subliminally". Julius Malema, the firebrand who heads the ANC Youth League, has stung the government by demanding a debate inside the ANC on the racial composition of Zuma's senior economics ministers (two Indians, a white male and a white woman).
The Semenya case was perfect for Malema. Here was a poor, modest black girl from a tiny village in Limpopo province who after a huge struggle became the world champion only to find her most private bodily parts and chemical make-up being subjected to the crudest of public examinations in the world's media.
Calls for Semenya to be tested, insisted Malema, were made solely because she was black and had "surpassed her European competitors". She had upset a sports establishment which simply could not accept that any ordinary woman could run that fast, and which had then done its best to destroy her with leaks, bungled press statements and gross insensitivity. White women athletes had excelled before – why didn't the sports authorities test them, or even ban them as they threatened to ban Semenya before the big race?
The issue, so ineptly handled by the IAAF, has divided South Africa in a peculiarly nasty way, with old ANC cadres from the Mandela era appalled by the behaviour of their younger comrades, but with a disturbing degree of support for Malema. Mandela himself used sport, with stunning success, to defuse the racial time bomb when he appeared on the pitch in the No 6 shirt of the Springbok captain, Francois Pienaar.
Before Mandela, rugby in South Africa was not even an English sport – it was an Afrikaans game, with other whites allowed to play only if they were especially good. A huge effort after 1994 to make it a more multi-racial game has created a Springbok team which is unquestionably the best in the world (in the past two weeks it has thrashed the All Blacks twice and the Australians once, and South Africa is of course the reigning world rugby champion). Cricket is an even bigger success story, and the Proteas, South Africa's international squad, were this week formally ranked number one in both the test and one-day world ratings.
So right at the moment Semenya was running her way into history and controversy, South Africa could boast the best rugby and cricket teams in the world, both of them transformed and multi-racial. It had done tolerably well in Berlin with three medals. In football, traditionally a blacks-only game, South Africa is well down the world order, but with the World Cup, and the new facilities that have been created for it, will change that too.
Semenya's gold medal, and the gold, also for 800m, won by the (100 per cent male) Mbulaeni Mulaudzi, should have given South African sports fans a great week. Instead it sent a tremor of trepidation running down the back of those who hoped the days of blatant racism were gone. And it has done untold damage to an 18-year-old who somehow has to manage an entire life ahead of her – hopefully as a woman.Reuse content