Caster Semenya OIB was born in Ga-Masehlong, South Africa. She holds a bachelor’s degree in sports science from the University of Pretoria. A professional middle-distance runner, she is an 800-metre-event world champion and a two-time Olympic gold medallist. Through the Caster Semenya Foundation, Semenya trains and assists young athletes, and supports campaigns to distribute menstrual cups to disadvantaged South African girls, supporting them to remain in school during their menstrual cycles. In 2014, Semenya was granted the bronze Order of Ikhamanga by the South African government for her achievements in sports.
Caster Semenya was interviewed about her life, career and hope for the future for 200 WOMEN, a book and exhibition project founded on the principle of gender equality comprising original interviews and accompanying photographic portraits. This landmark project is the realisation of an epic global journey to find two hundred women with diverse backgrounds, and to ask them what really matters to them.
Q. What really matters to you?
What matters to me is doing what I can to change the lives of others, especially the lives of people living in rural areas who have very limited access to resources. I set up my foundation because I believe in the potential of sport to develop young kids, to teach them discipline and to produce future leaders. I feel I can contribute to ensuring that kids become better human beings.
I loved sports from a young age; when I was six, I discovered running, and I just never stopped. My role model was the athlete Maria Mutola; she lived with me and inspired me. I decided I was going to be a world champ – that I was going to be better than her – but, as I matured, I realised life isn’t about being better than anybody else – it’s about being the best you can be. The actor Will Smith has said that he might not be the most talented or the smartest or the sexiest, but, when he steps onto the treadmill next to someone, either they are going to get off first or he’s going to die running. That motivates me a lot, because, it doesn’t matter how good anyone else is; when I step up to perform, I make sure I kill it! I hate training, but you reap what you sow. And, I am motivated by chasing my own improvement – that’s the message I want to impart on anyone who looks up to me.
Family is also very important to me. We come from a small, dusty town, and, although we lacked certain things, we had each other. Our family unit was strong, and my parents did a lot to make sure their six kids could have bright futures – I have such an appreciation for their sacrifices. I had quite a simple childhood, but it was great. I was forever in the bush, looking after my dad’s sheep and goats, or playing with my cousins; I would play with the boys – I’ve always liked a challenge! – and we were very rough with each other.
Growing up, everyone in my family was sporty: my dad was a great soccer player, my mum was into netball and my sisters did athletics. As a child, I was obsessed with soccer. My dad thought I might play for the national team one day and used to buy me soccer boots every three months, but then I chose another path: one day, I decided to sell all my boots to buy spikes instead. I love soccer, but, as with everything you do in life, I look back and see the benefits of the decision I made. I believe that sport has an important role to play in uniting people, and we need more unity in this world. This is why I’m doing what I can to motivate young people, so that they can have better lives and more opportunities.
Q. What brings you happiness?
I got married a few months ago, so that is my happiness; more than anything else, happiness is being with my wife. She supports me in everything I do and is the most precious thing in my life.
I also love running. It’s all about finding my rhythm – feeling every single step. Sometimes I’ll feel tired, but then I find that fire within me that tells me I can do it. In those moments when I can forget about everything that’s going on and the only thing that enters my mind is winning or losing, I love it so much.
Q. What do you regard as the lowest depth of misery?
It’s when people lack basic respect for one another. My grandmother taught me that in order to be respected you must show respect for others. I don’t care what anyone in the world thinks of me –every person in the world is different, we each have our own missions and visions – but the very least we can do is show respect for others. I respect people and their choices, and I expect the same treatment. I know that what I see is different from what others see, but that’s life. How can we live if we don’t respect each other?
Q. What would you change if you could?
I don’t have the power to change anything, but, if I did, I would change the way people treat one another. I look around and I see so much criticism – people criticising how others look, dictating how others should live – and that’s just never going to end well. I would force people to mind their own business, focus on themselves and live their own lives to the fullest. People need to understand that they can’t go around criticising or undermining or judging others. People just need to live their own lives and respect the right of others to do the same.
Q. Which single word do you most identify with?
Ubuntu. It has a lot of meanings, but, for me, it is about acknowledging the basic human dignity of every person. I am a reflection of those around me – I am defined by them. It is about being respectful of others and being received with respect.