Family Dismisses Questions Surrounding South African Runner's Gender

By: AP Email
By: AP Email

BERLIN (AP) -- The South African teenager caught up in the gender-test flap bowed her head to receive the gold medal for winning the 800-meter win at the world championships on Thursday, while officials and family came to her defense.

Caster Semenya won by a huge margin Wednesday in the face of revelations that the world track body asked her to undergo gender testing.

Asked while walking into the medal ceremony how she was feeling, Semenya smiled and said, "Good, man."

Dressed in a yellow and green track suit, Semenya waved to the crowd as she ascended the podium to receive her gold medal. She stood with her hands behind her back and mouthed the words to the South African national anthem.

Her dramatic improvement, muscular build and deep voice sparked speculation about her gender. Her father, grandmother and cousin dismissed speculation she is not a woman.

"She said to me she doesn't see what the big deal is all about," South Africa team manager Phiwe Mlangeni-Tsholetsane said. "She believes it is God given talent and she will exercise it."

About three weeks ago, the IAAF asked the South African athletics federation to conduct the gender test after Semenya burst onto the scene by posting a world leading time of 1 minute, 56.72 seconds at the African junior championships in Bambous, Mauritius.

Her father, Jacob, told the Sowetan newspaper: "She is my little girl. ... I raised her and I have never doubted her gender. She is a woman and I can repeat that a million times."

Semenya's paternal grandmother, Maputhi Sekgala, said the controversy "doesn't bother me that much because I know she's a woman."

"What can I do when they call her a man, when she's really not a man? It is God who made her look that way," Sekgala told the South African daily The Times.

South African athletics federation president Leonard Chuene defended the teenager Thursday, and insisted Semenya is facing intense scrutiny because she is African.

"It would not be like that if it were some young girl from Europe," Chuene told The Associated Press in a telephone interview. "If it was a white child, she would be sitting somewhere with a psychologist, but this is an African child."

Chuene also said there was no evidence to prove Semenya was doing anything wrong.

"If there was evidence, she would have been stopped," Chuene said. "Where I come from, you're innocent until proven guilty.

"They're judging her based on what?" Chuene added. "Who can give me conclusive evidence? I want someone to do that."

Semenya did not attend the medal winners' news conference after winning by a margin of more than 2 seconds, in 1:55.45. She was replaced at the dais by IAAF general secretary Pierre Weiss.

Weiss said the testing was ordered because of "ambiguity, not because we believe she is cheating."

If the tests show that Semenya is not a woman, she would be stripped of her gold medal, Weiss said.

The gender test, which takes weeks to complete, requires a physical medical evaluation, and includes reports from a gynecologist, endocrinologist, psychologist, an internal medicine specialist and an expert on gender.

"We have to be very scrupulously fair and sensitive about" the issue, IAAF spokesman Nick Davies said Thursday. "It's all very well people saying she's a man, she looks like a man -- that's not good enough. You have to be very careful and cautious about that."

Davies added that Semenya has already undergone some of the necessary tests at specialist hospitals in South Africa and Berlin. He said some of the documents in Berlin on Semenya's case were leaked.

Gender testing used to be mandatory for female athletes at the Olympics, but the screenings were dropped in 1999.

One reason for the change was not all women have standard female chromosomes. In addition, there are cases of people who have ambiguous genitalia or other congenital conditions.

The most common cause of sexual ambiguity is congenital adrenal hyperplasia, an endocrine disorder where the adrenal glands produce abnormally high levels of hormones.

Morris Gilbert, a media consultant for TuksSport, the University of Pretoria's sports department, said the issue of Semenya's gender has not been raised since the 18-year-old freshman began attending the school, where she studies sports science.

He attributed her recent success to hard work and rigorous training.

"She trains a lot," Gilbert said. "If you go to the athletics track, you're sure to find her there. I don't think she had really good training before she came to the university. She's from a very poor area."

But Semenya's former school headmaster said he thought for years that the student was a boy.

"She was always rough and played with the boys. She liked soccer and she wore pants to school. She never wore a dress. It was only in Grade 11 that I realized she's a girl," Eric Modiba, head of the Nthema Secondary School, told the Beeld newspaper.

Semenya's family in the village of Fairlie, about 300 miles north of Johannesburg, said she was often teased about her boyish looks.

"That's how God made her," said Semenya's cousin, Evelyn Sekgala. "We brought her up in a way that when people start making fun of her, she shouldn't get upset."

Semenya moved to Fairlie at about age 13 to help care for her grandmother.

Her cousin Evelyn, who also lives with the grandmother, remembers Semenya playing soccer with the village boys, before a teacher got her interested in running.

Evelyn said the family was pleased Semenya took up an interest in sports, and not in drinking and partying like other teenagers.

Her grandmother would give her money to enter races.

"She was mainly interested in running," Evelyn said. "She wanted to further her athletic dream."

While Semenya's case has attracted a flurry of attention, it's not the first gender controversy in track and field history.

In 2006, the Asian Games 800 champion, Santhi Soundarajan of India, was stripped of her medal after failing a gender test. Perhaps the most famous case is that of Stella Walsh, also known as Stanislawa Walasiewicz, a Polish athlete who won gold in the 100 at the 1932 Olympics, and was later found to have had ambiguous genitalia.


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