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7 May 2019
Engendering Coloniality under the guise of fair-play

(Published - 7 May 2019)

The International Association of Athletics Federation (IAAF) ruled against the appeal by unbeaten 800m world champion Caster Semenya to participate in athletics in her natural state. Instead, the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) compels “hyperandrogenic” athletes to artificially lower their testosterone levels.

For the past decade, Semenya has argued that she should be afforded the right to compete in her natural state and that her unique athletic ability should not be regulated.

The ruling this week has come under scrutiny from coaches, athletes, and various other stakeholders. As a female, as a sports participant and as a scholar, my position on this considers how various principles of coloniality produces and reproduces structures which perpetuate hegemonic masculinity and keeps women of colour banging their fists at the glass ceiling.

Firstly, let’s ponder the fact that the CAS board is exclusively white. This begs some consideration about how coloniality of power is embedded in Western and Euro-Centric beliefs about who gets to compete in these competitions and in which state. These supposed norms, for some reason, requires regulation and is manifested in this ruling which is steeped in largely dominant epistemologies embedded in global structures, such as CAS.

This Euro-American-centric hegemonic, heteronormative representation of a modern power structure cannot and should not be ignored as there lies a bias and prejudice of identity is it relates to Semenya’s biological idiosyncrasies. This creates a very dangerous space for the west to purvey misinterpretations, misunderstanding, and devaluing of the “other”. Saartjie Baartman was cast as “freak” and gazed upon as an anomaly of human creation, to be prodded and scrutinised with no regard for her dignity.

The other point to ponder is whether CAS has considered imposing the same restrictions on Semenya’s male counterparts and other prolific male athletes. How do they justify the participation of male athletes who have extraordinary athletic abilities without being subjected to the same biological restrictions? Athletes such as Usain Bolt, who has a longer than average stride length and active twitch muscle fibres or Michael Phelps who has a wider than average wingspan. Both of them are multiple Olympic gold medalists but none have been subjected to biological interrogation in the way that Semenya has. The double standards have inadvertently disadvantaged Semenya by virtue of her biological predisposition.

Academic Professor Walter Mignolo (2009) speaks about how power leaves marks on authority, knowledge and the understanding of being. In considering the coloniality of being; ontologically speaking, the practice and outcome of the appeal deny Semenya the right to dignity and self-pride. The appeal, in my view, advances sport as a colonial project that legitimises race, and various expressions thereof, and ultimately dehumanises Semenya as a black, female athlete, by ascribing existential colonial characteristic and symbols which CAS deems acceptable in track and field athletics.

For the sake of humanity, there is a need to strongly consider how female athletes are portrayed without objectifying, commodifying and “othering” them.  

Given the make-up of the board and its members, we need to challenge these institutions who may very well use Euro-American-centric “knowledge” to base its decision of appeal. Colonial thinkers, scholars, and decision makers will never leave room for indigenous knowledge systems in an attempt to understand the epistemologies and lived experiences embodied in the African female. Like their colonialist predecessors, CAS inadvertently accused Semenya of being inadequate and are trying to  impose Western forms of knowledge by forcing her to take medication to lower her testosterone levels and ultimately impair her performance.

So, to question how “knowledge” was applied in this appeal elucidates the risk of politicising how knowledge is generated, for whom and to what end. In this case, it is clear as a means to exclude Semenya from certain events which may see the proliferation of white female athletes on the winning podium. In addition, how relevant is this “knowledge” for other young, black athletes who aspire to be like Semenya?

In conclusion, I hope that through another appeal process Semenya and her team are able to disrupt some of the heteronormative rhetoric and practices and that we, as global citizens, are able to collectively exercise our own agency to challenge unfair social practices.

* Dr Simone Titus is a teaching and learning specialist in the Faculty of Community and Health Sciences at the University of the Western Cape. Her special research interests are focused on game-based learning and using emerging technologies to foster cross cultural interaction, learning, and engagement in higher education. Her current portfolio entails developing teaching and learning strategies in health science education and interprofessional education.