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Caster's missed economy of fame

Oct 29 2009 10:36
Mathatha Tsedu

IT is called the "economy of fame", where sporting champions in particular, cash in on their fame and make more money than through the sport itself.

Tiger Woods, David Beckham, the Williams sisters (Venus and Serena) and here at home, soccer star Tiko Modise, are just a few of the personalities who have raked in millions from endorsements.

In this age of brand awareness, controversy does not seem to dim the shine of stardom and its benefits. So Beckham "endures" claims of an extra-marital affair and sells even more of his fragrance, not to mention the shirts of whatever team he is playing for at the time.

Enter Caster Semenya, an unsophisticated girl (yes, girl) from the back of beyond. She makes world headlines on and off the field. Everyone wants to photograph her; every reasonable human being wants to hug her and protect her from the storm that has been unleashed around her.

She is a brand enjoying sympathy and love, a brand in demand, and in vogue. Crowds were following her when she was last allowed to wander among supporters. So, in the context of what high profile sportspeople do today, she should be raking in the endorsements of shirts, caps, and other paraphernalia.

But is she getting anything? YOU magazine made her a glamorous woman, dressing her up with lipstick and nails done in a way none of us had ever seen her. What they paid for that shoot is unclear, but some rumours put it at around R20 000.

The interest in the pictures was international, so the on-sell value in foreign currency to YOU magazine would have paid for all the expenses of the shoot and more. Did Caster's minders at Athletic South Africa (ASA), which negotiated this deal, close that gap so that she would benefit from the spin-off too?

The point is that stardom is a fleeting phenomenon; it has a timing fuse attached to it that burns out. If you don't use it when the spotlight is on you, it passes and you may not be able to get it back.

I truly understand why her parents and ASA are doing the socially understandable thing by shutting her off from the public and media. They do not want her to be asked whether some doctors poked her here at home before being poked again by a new set of foreign doctors in Berlin.

They do not want her to answer questions about whether she has body parts she should ordinarily not have, or whether she lacks other things that women are expected to have. In doing this noble lock of the door, and turning Caster into a prisoner of fate, both the ASA and her parents are at the same time depriving her of the material benefits that would accrue to her due to her status as a world champion.

And the controversy, painful and unfortunate as it is, ironically makes her even more of a marketable commodity. Perhaps, only perhaps, the material benefits would offset the pain of being Caster today. A girl all her life, she has been turned into a subject of intimate dissection and oh so publicly.

The blame must fall squarely on the ASA, which failed Caster so badly.

Having known and approved gender tests in Pretoria before the departure for Berlin, ASA president, Leonard Chuene, stood in front of the world and denied any knowledge of the same. Only to now turn around and admit to knowledge. He lied to protect her, he says.

Really? Maybe it was a lie to protect himself? Maybe hiding Caster from the media were also to ensure she does not spill the beans of the numerous pokings she was subjected to, with Chuene having at least approved one of the examinations. Maybe all those fulminations against the media was simply Chuene shielding Chuene and not Caster?

In the process, the window of exploiting the hero status fades each day for Caster, and her ability to extricate herself from poverty diminishes too. It is all so sad.

If Chuene has any apologies to make, it is to Caster herself primarily, for failing to protect her from a storm he knew would arise. I, for one, have not heard that from Chuene.

Instead, it is a lot of hot air and bluster that sounds stranger and stranger by the day. The prisoner, Caster, wallows in perpetual silence imposed by a man who cannot himself keep his own mouth shut for a minute.




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