August 20, 2009 / 2:44 PM / 11 years ago

Dispute over runner's gender angers South Africans

JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - South Africa’s ruling party on Thursday leapt to the defense of a world champion runner undergoing a gender verification test, saying she was the country’s “golden girl” and a role model for young athletes.

Caster Semenya of South Africa celebrates after she won the women's 800 metres final during the world athletics championships at the Olympic stadium in Berlin, August 19, 2009. REUTERS/Tobias Schwarz

Caster Semenya, whose rapid improvement over last year prompted the test, won the women’s world 800 meters title with a crushing performance in Berlin on Wednesday.

International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) General Secretary Pierre Weiss said an investigation into Semenya’s gender was under way in South Africa and Berlin.

He said the IAAF gave the 18-year-old the benefit of the doubt and allowed her to compete but if the investigation proved she was not female the result of the race would be withdrawn.

“We condemn the motives of those who have made it their business to question her gender due to her physique and running style. Such comments can only serve to portray women as being weak,” the African National Congress said in a statement.

“Caster is not the only woman athlete with a masculine build and the International Association of Athletics Federation should know better.”

Semenya clocked 1 minute, 55.45 seconds for the year’s fastest time and a personal best by more than a second.

A group of doctors, including an endocrinologist, a gynaecologist, an internal medicine expert, an expert on gender and a psychologist have started the gender test but the results may not be known for days, if not weeks.

SENSITIVE FOR SOUTH AFRICA

Radio stations have been abuzz with discussions of Semenya and the test that has overshadowed her speed on the track.

“This is a very sad case, because even if she’s on the genetic borderline, it’s not her fault — she’s just a person who runs fast and naturally wants her talent to be recognized,” said Elma Smit, the host of a television music show.

South Africans may be especially sensitive about their athletes ahead of hosting the 2010 Soccer World Cup which officials hope will bring the country international prestige.

The controversy drew an angry reaction from the ANC Youth League, which said all South Africans were behind Semenya.

Her improved performance this year raised alarms with athletic officials. But The South African Football Players Union saw ulterior motives.

“Why does IAAF only choose Semenya out of all the ladies at the Championships? It shows that these imperialist countries can’t afford to accept the talent that Africa as a continent has,” it said, adding that some states were pushing “their racist agenda” against South Africa.

Race is a sensitive issue in South Africa after decades of apartheid, which ended in 1994.

At Semenya’s village of Ga-Mmasehlong, about 400 km (250 miles) north of Johannesburg, relatives and friends said they were hurt by the “lies” spread about her.

“I am proud of her gender and I know she is proud of her gender too. I know that Caster is a girl and I have proof. The thing is that I can’t show you that,” said her cousin Daphne.

Slideshow (7 Images)

Semenya appeared to be unfazed by the attention. She had been scheduled to give a telephone interview to South Africa’s Talk Radio 702 but went training instead.

“Who can blame her? She is on top of the world right now,” said a 702 host. A reporter from the station said she had spoken to Semenya, describing her as really upbeat and quoted her as saying her critics can “go to hell.”

Additional reporting by Alison Raymond; and Ndundu Sithole and Spokes Mashiyane in Ga-Mmasehlong; editing by Andrew Dobbie

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