Caster Semenya's Life Beyond the Track

Red ShannonFeatured ColumnistApril 26, 2010

Sports enthusiasts have a very human tendency to exalt the athlete above his proper station.

Reality eventually sets in - and there is something strangely reassuring when we are taught once again that no individual is larger than his sport.

Carrying that thought further, it can be downright comforting when we're reminded that even sport itself is not the ultimate pinnacle of life.

Such a revelation hit me recently in the Caster Semenya case.

With a heart for the underdog, I got in Semenya's corner from the time she lined up in the 800 meter final at Berlin's 2009 World Championships. True, she held the season's best time of 1:56.72 but was still relatively unknown. She came from humble roots in South Africa. She was only 18.

Almost immediately after her stunning victory, Semenya's world came crashing down.

Complaints, based on her athletic physique, husky voice, and decisive victory margin prompted suspicion - first toward drugs, then toward intentional deceit regarding gender.

Clearing Semenya of the drug charges was easy and almost painless.

Her notorious gender testing and public humiliation - aggravated by a lengthy (eight months now) blacklisting from competition without proof of wrongdoing - only fueled the fires of my contempt for the powers that be.

Then, just days ago, Semenya brought everything into focus.

In what seemed at first like a concession to defeat, she hinted at having a life outside of competition:

"When you do sport, you are gambling. You run, you win, you lose...I cannot say athletics is my first option."

She then announced plans to open a sports academy to properly guide talented children from humble backgrounds (similar to her own) into their athletic careers. It will be named the Caster Semenya Sports Academy.

Apparently Semenya has not been sitting idle while the IAAF and medical experts dawdle in deciding her athletic future.

And, apparently she has heeded the warnings of another athlete, Santhi Soundarajan , who similarly made the best of a bad situation after being stripped of her silver medal in the 2006 Asian Games.

When pressed about the possibility of voluntarily ending her brief running career, Semenya responded with a smile,

"I don't give up."

My strong feelings over Semenya's inhumane treatment have not clouded my expectation of a level playing field. Let the bureaucrats hold a sword over her athletic ambitions if they will.

Women by design cannot compete with men at the elite level and a line separating the two must now be drawn.

But Semenya has made it clear the high and mighty cannot threaten the larger, more meaningful pursuits which will eventually make up the whole of her life.

"I don't think sport is something I can take for life. I still have my academy, my studies...I'm good in everything."

Yes, Caster...and you are good at reading as well. For with every passing month, week, day, the writing on the wall appears to be sad news.

The IAAF has now promised to release the test results in June. Semenya has optimistically made plans to run in Spain on June 24.

I truly hope Semenya will be exonerated. Her exploits on the track would provide the only fitting salve with which to soothe her open wounds.

If not, and she is banned from competing as a woman, I can now take solace in knowing Semenya will apply the next-best medicine: a fruitful life beyond the track, filled with giving.



(quotes courtesy of AP)