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Denis Beckett

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

The real lesson Caster Semenya taught us

When the call for anti-Mugabe sanctions was riding high, I think you noticed an irony. You’d heard the same noises before – “force the oppressors to their knees”, “show them that the world is serious” and so on – but now they came from different mouths.

This had been the ANC’s song, before De Klerk. Now Tories and Republicans and the DA were singing it.

And Thabo Mbeki was reading from the script that Helen Suzman had shared with Maggie Thatcher: “sanctions hurt the poor” and “quiet diplomacy gets results”.

It was wry; a proof that reason comes second. The world likes to think it works on logic but actually our minds have ratchets, factory fitted. We see things from the slant that we happen to know is the only straight-up slant there is, the one that God wants the world to have. Anybody coming at matters from a different slant is biased, automatically; usually ignorant and venal too.

It’s exactly like accents. I don’t have one of those. It’s you who do, if you speak differently to me.

It’s also exactly like Caster-views. Now that the chief shibboleth of Seffricanism is that Caster is Our Golden Girl Repeat Girl That Word Is Girl, anyone countenancing a certain particular question is instantly written off as a racist and a saboteur and even [block the children's ears] a European.

There’s a way that I understand the race thing coming into this. I’ll come back to it. But first I tell you how I keep cool when Caster-worship is flung at me. I think of parents at school athletics.

Say there’s a bump in a relay, and a stumble. It’s uncanny how every Green House parent can give sworn evidence, cross their heart, that Blue’s foot strayed into Green’s lane, while every Blue House parent saw first hand, direct, Green’s flailing elbow put Blue off balance.

When decibels rise in declaring Caster’s femininity, I imagine a women’s race – running, swimming, whatever – where our champion is beaten by someone else, an Australian, say, with a history of being seen as a boy. I know that the person now shouting at me “Be fair, leave her alone!” would shout “Be fair, she shouldn’t qualify!” (And the clever guys who say “it just takes a glance in the trousers” would be experts on X and Y chromosomes.)

You can’t get upset at people insisting on what way you should think, I find, when you know that they would insist on the opposite if the tables were turned.

This morning I caused upset of my own after hearing a bunch of good people, somewhat involved, talk of the heights that Caster is going to reach when the fuss settles. On evidence available to them, the world record is a doddle and the Usain of the next Olympics is identified and a great Seffrican celebrating is en route.

I said I can’t see that. I can only see tears.

They said how can I say that, who’s side was I on?


Recent comments:

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Liesl</a>
    August 31st, 2009 @11:39 #

    More plain talk on the whole Caster disaster over at Mahala:

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Fiona</a>
    August 31st, 2009 @21:42 #

    I disagree with Beckett on so many levels, it's hard to know where to start.

    The idea that it's somehow wrong or "irrational" for a country to be hotly partisan in favour of its sporting stars is just ridiculous. That's what sport is all about. It's about supporting your team through thick and thin. It's about cheering for them loudly and proudly, and defending them against all comers.

    There would be something wrong with a country that DIDN'T behave like this. If we all stood back calmly and said, "hmm, yes, this woman doesn't conform with accepted notions of femininity, there must be something wrong with her," there would be something very wrong with us.

    It's not as though she has been accused of wilful trickery, like Hansie Cronje was. Nobody seriously believes she has a penis strapped to her thigh. At most, she is morphologically female, but endocrinologically atypical. For Beckett to recommend that she should therefore compete in open races against men is simply ludicrous.

    And yes, I would agree that much of the ranting about racism is overblown, but you can't deny that the shabby way Caster has been treated has a lot to do with the fact that she hails from a humble village in Limpopo. If she'd been a young white American woman of wealthy and influential family, she would have been far more sensitively handled by the international athletics authorities.

    I refuse to be ashamed of supporting Caster Semenya or of calling her our golden girl. That's what you do when you're proud of your country and proud of its sporting heroes. If you don't, then by all means move to Iceland (as Beckett contemplates). You're cold-blooded enough to enjoy it.

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Helen</a>
    August 31st, 2009 @22:36 #

    Thanks, Fiona, for articulating so neatly my mutterings as I read Beckett's piece.


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