23 October 2020

‘No woman should have to prove she’s a woman’: Olympic champion on her mission to help female athletes

As a former Olympic champion Jackie Silva is used to pushing herself to be the best.

The 58 year-old - considered the ‘queen of beach volleyball’ - became the first Brazilian woman to win a gold medal at the Olympic Games in Atlanta in 1996 with her partner Sandra Pires.

During her time as a professional athlete, she had to fight for equality on and off the court, but now, with her playing days being behind her, Silva is championing the cause of other woman athletes.

She has recently been named ambassador of a new campaign called #LetHerRun, which aims to stop discrimination against female athletes and fights for those like Caster Semenya to be able to compete at the Tokyo Olympic Games next summer. 

She added: “We are always fighting for something, women are abused, women are told how they should be. This case with Caster Semenya is just one more thing.”

Semenya, the two-time Olympic 800m champion, was denied the opportunity by the Swiss Supreme Court last month to defend her title at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.

The 29 year-old was assigned female at birth and identifies as a female, but she has a hormone disorder that causes her to have naturally higher levels of testosterone.

Other 800m medallists such as Francine Niyonsaba from Burundi and Kenya’s Margaret Wambui, have the same condition and cannot compete at the Games in their natural state. 

But #LetHerRun is hoping to change this with the help of former athletes, sports scientists and doctors.

Caster Semenya has previously said she will ‘continue fight for the human rights of female athletes’ (Imago/PA Images)

The movement recalls the ‘nude parades’ which took place from the 1960s where female athletes had to take a ‘humiliating biological sex test’ in front of a panel of doctors, something Silva herself experienced.

This was mandatory for female athletes and the tests took place through to 1998 ‘due to fears that male athletes would pose as female athletes and have an unfair advantage over their competitors’ and ‘that certain female athletes had intersex conditions that gave unfair advantage’.

The following year the system changed the rules so athletes would only have a biological sex test in cases of ‘reasonable suspicion’ of an athlete’s sex. 

The new movement is putting an increasing amount of pressure on World Athletics to overturn their decision by releasing a video portraying the ‘embarrassment caused to female athletes’.

Silva believes that sex testing should be abolished and questions why only women get tested and not men. 

She said: "The world is changing, people are born with no gender, it’s all coming now, we should be discussing all these things, not this whole ‘are you women enough’. No woman should have to prove she’s a woman. 

"As a volleyball player I see sports as something really special, sports should be ahead of this, sports is a leader. 

“You should never say what the athletes should be before you listen to what the athletes have to say. And this is what is so important about the #LetHerRun movement.”

Semenya’s long battle against World Athletics came to an end after it was concluded that the South African would have to take testosterone-suppressing drugs if she wanted to compete in 400m to one-mile events at Tokyo next year. 

Her condition can increase her muscle mass, strength and oxygen-carrying hemoglobin levels in the blood, which can improve stamina.

But Silva cannot understand why people aren’t ‘celebrating’ athletes like Semenya, who is a three-time world champion.

Silva ultimately believes that it’s down to ‘sexism’ from the people at the top of athletics’ governing body.

She added: "Caster is a double Olympic champion she’s a wonderful athlete. I don’t understand why we are not celebrating something special. Why do we have to point and make it seem like something is wrong with them because they are too good.

"When you look at someone like Usain Bolt he is an incredible athlete, he won a lot. He should be tested, maybe he has something different.

"But instead it’s like ‘he’s different and that’s fine, let’s celebrate it’. What’s the difference between the men and the women?

"It seems they (World Athletics) like the control over women’s bodies.

"When World Athletics made this decision and said ‘if they take some hormones, or have some surgery, then they are allowed to run,’ how can you say that?

“All the time they say ‘no drugs’ and they are now the ones who want (athletes like Semenya) to take the drugs.”

Silva said that World Athletics and chief Sebastian Coe have ‘too much power’ and have failed to 'protect the athletes’.

She added: “World Athletics is supposed to protect the athletes, how can they take out a double Olympic champion like she is nothing. They don’t even think about ‘oh what will happen with her’ or ‘we can’t do this, she’s a double Olympic champion, so let’s think about what else she could do.'”

In September 2019, Semenya decided to take on a different sport where she was accepted, when she joined South African football club JVW F.C.

Despite World Athletics not getting in touch with the movement directly, Silva is certain the governing body and Coe have heard their voices.

Semenya has not only received a lack of support off the track, but also on the track. 

Her competitors have stated that she has an unfair advantage, but Silva says there’s only one reason for their behaviour. 

She said: "I can understand. But they are losing and so they will say that. If Caster has more (testosterone) it doesn’t mean she is the champion because of it. 

"You have to have the ability to be the best in the world. I think Caster is really good, she trained to be the best in the world and she did it.

“Firstly they shouldn’t do what they are doing. They try to have an answer because they can’t win. 

"For the sport, they should say congratulations to her because she’s a great athlete, and then they can go back in training and try and win next time.”

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