Caster Semenya: 21st Century “Hottentot Venus”?

Published on 11th December 2009

Semenya leads the pack                Photo courtesy
The disgraceful treatment of Caster Semenya is eerily familiar to that of another South African woman: Saartjie Baartman. In this case, we must not allow history to repeat itself!


In March 1815 a group of French scientists, Georges Cuvier among them, examined the living body of a young South African woman named Saartjie Baartman at the Jardin du Roi in Paris. Cuvier and his colleagues were particularly fascinated with the size and shape of Baartman’s genitalia and buttocks, as were the hordes of people who paid to see her exhibited in London and Paris between 1810 and 1815. Derisively known as the “Hottentot Venus,” Baartman’s death in December 1815 did not end her degradation. After dissecting her body, Baartman’s excised genitals and brain were preserved in formaldehyde and displayed at the Musée de l'Homme, along with her skeleton, until 1974. Her remains were then unceremoniously removed from public view and stored in a dusty cabinet where they remained until 2002. That year, after decades of protest including a plea from Nelson Mandela, France reluctantly repatriated Baartman’s surviving body parts to South Africa, where she was given a proper burial.


Fast forward nearly two hundred years and the genitals of another young South African woman, runner Caster Semenya, have once again become the target of western scientists’ prodding and poking. Hours before the eighteen-year-old was scheduled to compete in the 800m final of the 2009 World Championships in Athletics in Berlin last August, the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) confirmed leaked press reports that Semenya was being made to undergo gender verification testing. 


While athletes are regularly subjected to various forms of testing to ensure that their performances are fraud-free, including at times "gender-proofing", Caster Semenya’s case is characterized by an utter disregard for her humanity, not to mention medical confidentiality. This is the crux of the matter. Even athletes suspected of doping are considered innocent until proven guilty. Not so with Miss Semenya, who entered Berlin’s Olympic Stadium on 19 August 2009 with the weight of the world’s gaze upon her body. In less than a month a second media leak refocused the world’s attention on the intimate interior of Semenya’s young body, even before she had the time to contemplate what may well be information she never knew about her own physicality.


Semenya’s story is further complicated by the unfortunate but inextricable link between national prestige and international sports competitions. One need only look at the intense pressure that South Africa is currently under to “get it right” for the 2010 FIFA World Cup or the elation that swept Brazil when Rio de Jeneiro won the bid for the 2016 Summer Olympics to figure out that nationalism is deeply tied to sports. This is especially the case for “newly industrialized countries” (NIC), like South Africa and Brazil, because their bona fides are being put to the test on the international stage. This argument extends to athletes, who are a measure of their nations’ wealth and human capital. While many developed countries can boast of top-notch training facilities that produce elite athletes, others, especially those in the developing world, take pride in athletes who shine against all odds.


In the case of Caster Semenya, her triumph over rural underdevelopment and poverty, which still characterize so much of today’s South Africa, even though it is technically an NIC, means that her fate is linked to South Africa’s potential glory in ways that are far more charged than the nearly all-white Springboks. After all if Semenya managed to outperform her Western competitors, who have the benefit of the best athletic training in the world, imagine what she and countless other Black South Africans could achieve if the playing field is level? No wonder Athletics South Africa (ASA) was in such a rush to have Miss Semenya compete in Berlin. The question, however, is whether they did so knowing that her gender was being questioned and that gender verification tests were being requested.


The most recent evidence, in the form of emails exchanged between ASA officials, suggests that testing was already underway in South Africa prior to Semenya’s arrival in Berlin and that ASA officials were aware that the issue might come up again in Berlin.  Nonetheless they let her compete.  ASA clearly failed Caster Semenya. Even if at the conclusion of the testing undertaken in South Africa, ASA was genuinely satisfied that Semenya should compete as a woman, their decision to thrust her into the international spotlight when the IAAF raised concerns about her gender suggests that they prized the gold medal they knew Semenya would win over her emotional wellbeing. 


Yet what happened in Berlin still could have been averted had the IAAF possessed a shred of ethical decency. Instead they waited until shortly before Semenya’s gold medal final to launch their own independent investigation of her gender. The very nature of such tests, under normal circumstances, is already emotionally traumatic for the person undergoing them, let alone a young woman who is on the verge of the run of her life. As if all of this was not horrific enough, the IAAF failed to keep the tests a private matter between Semenya, the IAAF, and health care professionals. As Semenya stepped on the track, media outlets the world over were busy debating her legitimacy to run as a woman. 


The immediate effect of the news was evident in the nasty statements her competitors made about her: Italy’s Elisa Cusma Piccione called Semenya a man, while Russia’s Mariya Savinova admonished journalists to “just look at her.” Perhaps they hoped with all eyes on Semenya nobody would notice how poorly they performed. Good sportsmanship is often in short supply in the upper echelons of world athletics, but the disgust that accompanied Piccione and Savinova’s comments is even more indicative of the hostile climate that the IAAF’s mishandling of the situation created for Semenya. That she was able to perform well enough to win the gold medal is a testament not only to her athletic ability, but also to her grace under fire. But let us not kid ourselves, Semenya is an 18-year-old young woman who despite her brave face and taking-it-all-in-stride demeanor has been made to endure a hellish bodily invasion in front of the world.  May her family, South Africa, and all people of conscience continue to love and support this courageous and talented young woman.


Two centuries separate Baartman and Semenya, yet they are inextricably linked by the same fraught history that surrounds the West’s fascination with and disregard for the Black body. Broadly characterized by an absence of ethics, this history includes the infamous Tuskegee Experiment in which the U.S. Public Health Service (PHS) intentionally allowed 399 African-American men to be ravaged by tertiary syphilis because PHS scientists were only interested in collecting biological data on the disease from the men after they were dead. It also includes the different ethical standards that National Geographic apparently uses when deciding which nude bodies it will display. If in doubt, ask yourself when you last saw a bare-breasted white woman splashed across the pages of National Geographic? Now ask yourself, when was the last time the “masculine” body of an elite white female athlete was pried open in full view of the world to determine her eligibility to compete as a woman?


For those who dismiss the idea that Baartman and Semenya can be viewed within the same analytic lens I would simply say that their obvious differences as historical subjects do not negate the shared ways in which their Black bodies have become public spectacles and  (mis)treated as anatomic curiosities that deserve neither respect nor dignity. It is precisely the fact that nearly two hundred years separate them and that Semenya is in so many ways categorically different than Baartman that underscores the powerfully consistent way in which the Black body has been dehumanized and viewed with a dangerous mix of fear and fascination across time and space. Saartjie Baartman’s short life came to a tragic end, in part, because her body was not strong enough to withstand the weight of the world’s gaze. We must not allow Caster Semenya to become the twenty-first century’s “Hottentot Venus”.


By Prof. Carina Ray

Visiting Fellow, Center for African American Studies

This article first appeared in the November 2009 issue of New African.

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