BERLIN (Reuters) – The gender controversy surrounding South Africa’s teenage 800 metres world champion Caster Semenya has been humiliating for her, the country’s athletics chief said on Thursday.
Semenya’s rapid improvement over the past year, in which she has shaved more than eight seconds off her personal best in the two-lap race, prompted the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) to order a gender test.
"I will continue to defend the girl, I will continue to do anything, even if I am to be kicked out of Berlin, Germany, but I am not going to let that girl be humiliated in the manner that she was humiliated because she has not committed a crime whatsoever. Her crime was to be born the way she is born," said Athletics South Africa president Leonard Chuene.
"And now people are not happy, and on that basis she is isolated like a leper, like she has got a disease that will affect other people, and I don’t think it’s proper," he told Reuters Television.
The IAAF said on Wednesday, hours before Semenya was due to run in the 800 final, the procedure for gender testing had started.
Powerfully built but smooth running, the 18-year-old clocked one minute, 55.45 seconds for the year’s fastest time and a personal best by more than a second to win gold.
"I think what they should have done is to protect her until the results are out and then we sit and look at it," Chuene said.
He said the IAAF had allowed her to compete because "today there is no proof and the benefit of doubt must always be in favour of the athlete".
"But one question is clear," Weiss said. "If at the end of the investigation it is proven the athlete is not a female, we will withdraw the result of the competition today."
He added doctors consulted by the IAAF said it would take days or even weeks before a conclusion could be reached from her gender test.
South Africa’s ruling party on Thursday leapt to the defence 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, whose rapid improvement over last year prompted the test, won the women’s world 800 metres 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 underway in both 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 recognised," said Elma Smit, 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.
The teenager from a rural village appeared to be unfazed by the international attention on her gender. Semenya 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".
"People must stop calling her a man because we are proud of her," The Times newspaper quoted her sister Nkele, 16, as saying.