June 18th, 2010
12:18 AM ET

Elephants are soccer giants

Namibia, one the players at the Knysna Elephant Park, is favorite to win this tackle.
Namibia, one the players at the Knysna Elephant Park, is favorite to win this tackle.

Knysna Elephant Park, South Africa - The real giant of soccer isn't Ronaldo, Kaka or Messi - it's Namibia, a four-ton orphaned elephant with serious dribbling skills and a placid temperament unlike many of the stars on the human fields.

At the Knysna Elephant Park in South Africa, orphaned elephants have been kicking a soccer ball for years. This year the playing pachyderms have gotten into the spirit of the World Cup.

It's not just fun and games, though. "It's cognitive development therapy for them," says park manager Greg Vogt. "Soccer and playing with the soccer ball brings in an element in the relationship between each of the handlers and the elephants. Every elephant is an individual, a specific personality and every handler has his own personality."

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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