Sports, Sex, and the Case of Caster SemenyaWhen people in South Africa say “Limpopo,” they mean the middle of nowhere. They are referring to the northernmost province of the country, along the border with Botswana, Zimbabwe, and Mozambique, where few people have cars or running water or opportunities for greatness. The members of the Moletjie Athletics Club, who live throughout the area in villages of small brick houses and mud-and-dung huts, have high hopes nonetheless.
One day in late September, twenty teen-age athletes gathered for practice on a dirt road in front of Rametlwana Lower Primary School, after walking half an hour through yellow cornfields from their homes, to meet their coach, Jeremiah Mokaba. The school’s track is not graded, and donkeys and goats kept walking across it to graze on the new grass that was sprouting as the South African winter gave way to spring. “During the rainy season, we can’t train,” said Mokaba, a short man wearing a brown corduroy jacket with a golden Zion Christian Church pin on the lapel. “We have nowhere to go inside.”
For cross-country, Mokaba and his co-coach, Phineas Sako, train their runners in the miles of bush that spread out behind the track, toward the mountains in the distance. The land is webbed with brambles, and the thorns are a serious problem for the athletes, who train barefoot. “They run on loose stones, scraping them, making a wound, making a scar,” Sako, a tall, bald man with rheumy eyes and a big gap between his two front teeth, said. “We can’t stop and say we don’t have running shoes, because we don’t have money. The parents don’t have money. So what must we do? We just go on.”
The athletes and their coaches apologized for not having a clubhouse in which to serve tea. They didn’t like talking out in the wind and the dust. There was music playing down the road at a brick-front bar, and chickens squawking in people’s front yards, where they are kept in enclosures made out of tree branches. “The most disadvantaged rural area,” Sako said, laughing a little and stretching his arms out wide. “That is where you are.”
The fastest runner in the club now is a seventeen-year-old named Andrew who recently became the district champion in the fifteen-hundred-metre event. The average monthly income for black Africans in Limpopo—more than ninety-seven per cent of the local population—is less than a thousand rand per month, roughly a hundred and thirty-five dollars. (For white residents, who make up two per cent of the population, it is more than four times that amount.) “I think I will go to the Olympics,” Andrew said, with conviction.
Joyce, a tiny girl in a pink sweater who is eighteen but looked much younger, was similarly optimistic. “I want to be the world champion,” she said, her voice so soft it was almost a whisper. “I will be the world champion. I want to participate in athletics and have a scholarship. Caster is making me proud. She won. She put our club on the map.”
Caster Semenya, the current world champion in the eight hundred metres, was a member of the Moletjie Athletics Club until a year ago. She was born in Ga-Masehlong, a village about fifteen miles from the track, and she was, Coach Sako said, “a natural.” Even before Semenya left Limpopo for college, in Pretoria, she had won a gold medal in her event at the 2008 Commonwealth Youth Games, in Pune, India, with a time of 2:04, eleven seconds behind the senior world record set by the Czech runner Jarmila Kratochvílová in 1983. “I used to tell Caster that she must try her level best,” Sako said. “By performing the best, maybe good guys with big stomachs full of money will see her and then help her with schooling and the likes. That is the motivation.” He added, “And she always tried her level best.” Semenya won another gold medal in July, in Mauritius, at the African Junior Athletics Championships, lowering her time by a remarkable seven and a half seconds, to come in at 1:56.72. This beat the South African record for that event, held by Zola Budd, and qualified Semenya for her first senior competition, the 2009 World Championships, in Berlin.
Semenya won the eight-hundred-metre title by nearly two and a half seconds, finishing in 1:55.45. After the first lap of the race, she cruised past her competitors like a machine. She has a powerful stride and remarkable efficiency of movement: in footage of the World Championships, you can see the other runners thrashing behind her, but her trunk stays still, even as she is pumping her muscle-bound arms up and down. Her win looks effortless, inevitable. “Even when we were training, I used to pair her with the males,” Sako told me. “I feel like she was too powerful for ladies.” It was a stunning victory for Semenya, for the Moletjie Athletics Club, and for South Africa...