August 25th, 2009
04:49 PM ET

Crowds throng as Semenya returns home

The crowd cheers wildly as athlete Caster Semenya strides through the arrivals hall at O.R. Tambo Airport in Johannesburg.

Despite the police's best efforts, a mass of  eager South Africans swirl around her and her escort, trying to touch the teenager or even just get a snap of her arrival on their mobile phones.

Semenya received a rapturous reception on her return to South Africa following the controversy surrounding her gender.
Semenya received a rapturous reception on her return to South Africa following the controversy surrounding her gender.

The cheering and excited dancing continue outside as Semenya and her fellow-athletes board their bus.

A few bemused tourists wheel their luggage carts gingerly through the jubilant throng looking uncertainly from side to side.

The bus circles the airport and drops  Semenya and her team-mates onto a stage erected on a parking lot at the side of the airport.

The crowd has reassembled in front of the stage and they cheer wildly as the politicians, who have come to greet her, make speeches and a popular South African hit song blares out through the chill spring air.

Semenya herself says nothing, but she appears composed despite the chaos surrounding her.

She smiles gently at the crowd. For a rural 18-year-old with little previous exposure to the limelight, she is clearly bearing up well.

Her enthusiastic welcome is a sign of just how the controversy surrounding her gold medal win in Berlin has enraged most South Africans.

The story of this shy, somewhat uncertain young athlete is, at its core, a story about identity.

Firstly, of course, the fact that her gender has been called into question raises uncomfortable, but universal, questions about the nature of gender and who has the right to define that identity.

It raises crucial issues, too, about the politics of sport and the scientific ethics involved in the testing of athletes.

But, crucially, Caster’s rapturous welcome home says something about what it means to be a black South African in post-apartheid South Africa.

Many in the West might find it difficult to comprehend the depth of the rage and the perceived insult at her gender being questioned.

To black South Africans, the testing is a bitter reminder of past European colonial arrogance when Africans were regarded as less than fully human, their bodies objects of scientific curiosity to be displayed in museums to satisfy the novelty-seeking instincts of crowds in Europe.

Many feel that the west cannot accept Semanya's win because they cannot come to terms with the notion of Africans achieving excellence.

This rage is difficult to counter. Who can here say exactly where the politics of sport and the politics of race and of gender begin and end?

These debates will rage for months, and their after-effects linger for years to come. But to understand the deep roots of black South African outrage at their heroine being subjected to this testing one should travel to the far north of the country, to the rural heartland of Limpopo Province where she grew up.

On the edge of Fairlea village is a dusty football pitch where Semanya began to first play and then to run. The field is hard and uneven, covered in stones, at the edges broken glass and rusty cans litter the dry grass. A herd of goats wanders across the bare earth grazing for whatever sustenance they can find.

The poverty of this African field is a long way from the immaculate training grounds of Europe and the west.

It is astonishing that an athlete of  Semenya’s achievements could have begun her career here, so far behind her competitors, and have risen so high to have beaten them on their own tracks.

Semenya’s victory means something much more than winning a gold medal, it is a triumph of hope, a feat that celebrates being African and to have achieved struggling against such hardships. Africa will not easily let the west forget that.

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Filed under:  Athletics
August 25th, 2009
01:35 PM ET

The class of captain Strauss

Although Andrew "Freddie" Flintoff and all-rounder Stuart Broad hogged many of the headlines following England's defeat of Australia which sealed and Ashes series win at the weekend, it's the captain of the home side Andrew Strauss deserves the plaudits.

Andrew Strauss rose to the challenge of becoming captain of his country to seal an Ashes win over Australia.
Andrew Strauss rose to the challenge of becoming captain of his country to seal an Ashes win over Australia.

It's also a remarkable turnaround in fortunes for the man I interviewed in 2006 – then contemplating the fact he had been overlooked as skipper for the Ashes series in Australia. With Michael Vaughan injured, the selectors picked Flintoff instead.

Strauss spoke diplomatically about the decision but the disappointment was plain to see from his expressions.  Further indignity was to follow, as Flintoff and his teammates were hammered 5-0 in the series while Strauss's form with the bat suffered so much that he was dropped from the national side.

Forward the clock two years and cometh the hour cometh the man – Strauss was the only candidate for captain in 2009.

Together, with England's new coach Andrew Flower (how many Andy's does a cricket side need?), Strauss has quietly and confidently absorbed all the pressure that comes with leadership.

He has allowed teammates – some of whom failed as captain themselves – to concentrate on playing their best cricket.

At the same time, Strauss's batting has never been better. He has the ability to switch off from the captaincy while out in the middle and finished this Ashes series as the top run scorer and by hitting more boundaries than anyone else.

Strauss isn't controversial but he doesn't duck tough questions or issues – he was right to suggest the current Australian side has less of an aura than in previous years despite the furor it created.

The Ashes triumph was a great achievement but their could be more to come from a captain whose glowing reputation is still growing.

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Filed under:  Cricket