Full of underdog success stories, the Olympic Games are often seen as a way to overcome inequality. In reality, however, the sporting event can serve as a platform for sexism and even racism.

Caster Semenya

An example of this is the treatment of Caster Semenya, a South African track and field star. At first glance, Semenya is the perfect rags-to-riches Olympic success story. She grew up in a poor rural area of Limpopo to become one of the biggest sports successes in the post-apartheid era.  However, many remember her not for her extraordinary past performances, but for the allegations made questioning her gender.

On the day before one of her races in 2009, the International Association of Athletics Federations announced she was undergoing gender verification tests. Newspapers started discussing her biological make-up, whether she should compete with women or men, and whether she should be stripped of her medals.

It was later decided by the international bodies that Semenya could compete with women, yet this still left many questions. Why do we question the sex and gender of successful female athletes who don’t fit idealised Barbie Doll standards of femininity? Why do we not question the unfair advantage of unique physical attributes that make Usain Bolt and Michael Phelps Olympic successes? Are gender tests an example of the sexism in sports – after all the “testing, treatment and humiliation that come with it, only applies to female athletes”? And, whilst the practice has so far failed to find a male athlete knowingly misrepresenting his gender, it would be considered unacceptable in most other institutions.

There is another important aspect to this. A disparity in coverage between ‘Western’ and South African newspapers, demonstrates the intersection of race and gender. Women in sports have a raw deal; women of colour often seem to be even worse off (alongside others that do not fit Western beauty ideals). 

There are many successful African female athletes. The inspiration they provide, is not just inspiring others to achieve sporting success; but to do so in the face of sexism and racism.