Caster Semenya: Born to Run

Does Caster Semenya have an ‘unfair advantage’ over the rest of the field? Yes. Should she be allowed to compete at the Olympics? Yes. That’s life. And life ain’t fair.

Like most South Africans, I am a staunch Caster Semenya supporter. I am tired of the speculation surrounding her eligibility to compete, sick of hearing about her ‘unfair’ advantage.

Does she have naturally high levels of testosterone? Yes. Has this helped hone her skills as a runner? Sure.

But let’s face it, she’s not alone in having an unfair advantage. As many writers have pointed out before me, the Olympic Games are a freak show, from the super-bendy gymnasts and super-strong weight lifters, to track cyclists with thighs thicker than your average baobab, swimmers with feet long enough to be officially classified as flippers, and athletes across the field with lung capacities large enough to inflate the Goodyear Blimp.

I think of it in terms of natural selection, which since time immemorial has given certain species – including humans – advantages over their competitors. Those that developed lungs climbed out of the water and took over the land. Those that developed wings took to the skies. Those with opposable thumbs learnt how to use tools. Those who were taller, faster, stronger clubbed their competitors over the head before claiming the most fertile women for themselves.

In the sporting arena, those with natural flexibility fared well in gymnastics, those blessed with height took to the basketball courts, and those with flipper-like feet hit the pool.

To the victor go the spoils.

Super-bendy gymnast, and super-tall basketball player, by Amy Saunders (7)

It’s a gross over-simplification I know. And I understand that not all of it is ‘natural’ selection. I know that flexibility and strength can be developed, that muscles can be trained and honed and built. I also know that steroids can be injected, blood can be bagged, and that there is already talk of genes being modified to improve athletic performance.

But, to the best of anyone’s knowledge, Caster Semenya is not using any unnatural means to enhance her performance.

Let’s also not forget that being born flexible doesn’t mean that you will become the next Simone Biles. Or that your big feet mean you’re destined to beat Phelps at the next Games.

Or that Semenya’s naturally-high testosterone levels allowed her to walk into the 800m finals.

At the beginning of this post, I compared the Olympic Games to a freak show. That’s probably a little extreme, and people are bound to take it the wrong way. My point is this:

‘Unfair advantages’ lie at the heart of human development. Life is not a level playing field, and we are doing ourselves, and our children, a huge disservice if we pretend that it is.

Should someone have stopped Mozart from composing because he had an unnaturally good ear for music? Or prevented Einstein from dabbling in science because he outshone his peers?

I, for one, can’t wait to see Caster compete on Saturday. She was so clearly born to run.

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