Monica Roberts

Black Female Athletes: An Ongoing Meme of Ignorance

Filed By Monica Roberts | August 25, 2009 3:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Entertainment, Politics
Tags: African diaspora, Caster Semenya, gender identity, IAAF, international sports

One of the depressingly tired memes of elite level athletic competition is that almost every time a Black woman rises to become the best at her sport, she is either dissed, suspected of cheating or has her gender identity questioned.

caster-semenya wins.jpgThe latest episode of this sorry meme is evolving right now in the wake of Caster Semenya winning the 800m world championship in Berlin with the fifth fastest run of all time.

Since she doesn't look stereotypically female, has short cropped hair and a deep, raspy voice, that's enough 'evidence' for the IAAF gender police to haul her in for gender testing.

Wonder if Caster had been a blonde haired blue eyed European runner who ran that same time? Would the IAAF react the same way?

Probably not.

Semenya's best revenge should she pass the gender test will be to keep kicking their asses until she's standing on the top step of the 800m run victory platform at the 2012 London Games. She and her family can smile while they're putting a gold medal around her neck and playing the South African national anthem.

williams sisters.jpgBut this crap has played itself out over and over again throughout my lifetime. The Williams sisters have battled that BS in addition to being insultingly called transwomen as they spent the 2K's merrily dominating the women's professional tennis tour.

WNBA and college basketball players constantly battle this meme as well.

Ice skater Debi Thomas was described by commentators during her competitive rivalry with Germany's Katarina Witt in the 80's as 'athletic and powerful'. Conversely, Witt was described as 'artistic and graceful'.

The same crap was said about France's Surya Bonaly a few short years later. She was a world champion gymnast who was the only figure skater in the world who could perform a back flip and land on one skate. But that athletic ability probably cost her a world figure skating championship as well in 1994.

Even Florence Griffith-Joyner, the woman who brought fashion and glamour to the track world had her problems with that meme.

flo jo2.jpgFlo Jo ran world record times in the 100m and 200m meters that haven't been matched by any current female runner enroute to her four medal winning performance at the 1988 Seoul Games.

Because of Flo Jo's slightly muscular frame and her running style, she dealt with rumors throughout her career that followed her to the grave she was on steroids. This despite the fact she never failed a post race drug test.

After Brazilian runner Joaquim Cruz held a press conference accusing her of precisely that, a reporter famously remarked, "If Flo Jo's on steroids, I'm buying some for my girlfriend."

As the Nigerian Super Falcon womens soccer team proved last year, women will even cattily throw the 'that's a man' shade at each other to cover up their own lousy performance.

In the 2008 African Women's Cup Tournament they spent more time complaining and questioning the gender of two of Equatorial Guinea's players than handling their own business. The Super Falcons eventually lost to Equatorial Guinea 1-0 in the semifinals and finished third in a tournament they up until that point had never lost.

But this plays into a larger meme of ignorance and preconceived notions about what is and isn't feminine. The fact that Black women have historically been saddled with the baggage of being considered less than female vis-a- vis the vanilla flavored beauty standard only adds to this drama.

Add archaic and stereotypical notions about what athletic feats a woman is capable of producing, throw in a little borderline racism and you have a recipe for negative behavior and judgmental commentary to come out of people's mouths.

If it coincides with what the 'experts' consider as 'too rapid' athletic performance for a woman, she may find herself being subjected to a battery of embarrassing and invasive tests just to prove to cynical skeptics that she's 'woman enough' to compete in elite sports with other women.

(Crossposted at TransGriot)


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Monica, I share your hope that Semenya will be vindicated. And if the IAAF decision goes the wrong way, I hope that the South African government sues the IAAF's ass.

It won't be the first time that a lawsuit had to happen for a woman runner to get some justice on gender issues. Spain's Maria Patino had to sue in the 1980s, after she was thrown overboard by the IOC for being a case of CAIS (a condition that is now allowed to compete).

Robert Ganshorn Robert Ganshorn | August 26, 2009 12:18 AM

In that Semenya has gone from total obscurity to such a phenom in so short a time I am sure the SA government will do any and everything they can to support her. Jacob Zuma has already stated as much.

Patricia, Robert

Hope she is vindicated as well. But having the East Germans former track coach doesn't help.