Mari Engh

Mari Engh

Hetero-sexing the athlete: public discourses on sexuality and women athletes in South Africa

On the African continent sport has, particularly in the last two decades, been hailed as a useful tool in the quest for nation building and social cohesion. A popular claim is that sport has a particularly powerful role to play in achieving gender equality and women’s empowerment, and that the pride imbued in national teams and athletes can foster national unity and cohesion across historical divides. Yet, what often remains silenced in assertions about the benefits and potentials of sport, are the ways in which sport also produces and sustains exclusion, frequently along sex/gender and racial lines. Sport has social and cultural significance precisely because it provides an avenue for the reproduction of normativities of embodiment, gender, race and sexuality.

In this presentation, we will critically examine how South African public policy and sport media discourses on sport reproduce heteronormative and racialised ideas about women’s sport and women athletes. Focusing in particular on representations of South African women’ athletes, we will in this presentation raise questions about what type and form of visibility is afforded South African sportswomen- especially those women who do not conform to a hetero-sexy-fit mould. Using examples of public debates regarding three South African women athletes–Eudy Simelane, Caster Semenya and Portia Modise– we argue that three representational practices shape discussions of gender, sexuality and women’s sport in South Africa through annihilation, domestication, and silence. In so doing, our examination will raise critical questions regarding the need to decolonise engagements with sport, gender and sexualities on the African continent.

Co-author: Cheryl Potgieter (University of KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa

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