Saturday, August 22, 2009

South Africa Stands Up for Gold Medalist Caster Mokgadi Semenya

She's a lady, man

Aug 21 2009 09:01

When a well-built Maria Mutola of Mozambique, a former footballer, burst into the athletics arena in the late 1980s, her gender was immediately questioned in Europe.

Little did she know that it was something she would have to live with for the greater part of her fantastic career as arguably the best 800m runner of all time.

About 20 years later another African athlete finds herself subjected to the same scrutiny. South African and new 800m world champion Mokgadi "Caster" Semenya's gender is being questioned in Europe, sparking outrage back home.

Zithulele Sinqe, the 1996 and 1997 Two Oceans Marathon winner, is among the growing number of South Africans livid at the treatment of Semenya, who stormed to victory in the Berlin Athletics World Championships with a remarkable time of 1:55:45 -- the fastest this year.

Reports, emanating mostly from Australian and English media, imply that Semenya may be a cheat -- a man running a women's race.

The basis of their speculation is that the teenager has masculine features, such as facial hair and a deep voice and is well built.

The same argument was advanced about Mutola's gender. The Mozambican middle-distance runner, like Semenya, was subjected to all sorts of scrutiny before she rose above the abuse to dominate the 800m for close to a decade.

On Wednesday night the young girl followed in the steps of the great Mutola, remaining focused on her race and showing the field a clean pair of heels. Not even the English commentator, who concentrated on third-placed Briton Jenny Meadows, could deny Semenya the glory she deserved.

Sinqe is under no illusion about the 18-year-old world champion's sex. His daughter, Zinhle, shares a room with Semenya at Pretoria University, where the teenage girls are studying sports science.

"What is happening to this girl is very traumatic. I know she is a woman. She does not only share a room with my daughter, but the two girls also train and shower together," he told the Mail & Guardian.

Even before she arrived on the track for the final Sinqe was convinced that Semenya would put in a gold-medal performance.

"If they think that this [issue of her gender] will distract her from the job at hand, then they better think again, because she is used to all the doubts about her being a woman," he said.

"She is even sometimes stopped and told to use the men's toilet in public places here at home, which is a shame, really."

He pleaded with the South African public to support her in the face of the assault by the foreign media.

"It is important that we all make her feel loved and appreciated on her return home, like a true hero."

Instead of celebrating her win, Semenya appeared to be weighed down by the media reports. For somebody who had just run the fastest time of the year and come close to breaking the world record of 1:53.28, set 26 years ago, she appeared subdued.

Nick Davis, the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) spokesperson, agreed that eyebrows had been raised about her times.

What the critics overlook, perhaps, is that she is still about two seconds off the world record and that the gap between her and the chasing pack says more about the poor field than about her gender.

Semenya's coach at Pretoria University, Michael Seme, was equally outraged at the way the IAAF had handled the controversy when the M&G spoke to him just hours before the final.

"I have been working with Caster since January and I can tell you that I have been training a girl, not a boy."

He alleged that the timing of the reports of gender verification tests hours before the final were an attempt to break her concentration.

What angers him is that it isn't the first time Semenya has competed on the international stage. She won gold last month in the World Junior Championships in Mauritius with another breath­taking time of 1:56.72.

It is difficult to imagine that her time would have been allowed to stand without the athlete being subjected to rigorous IAAF examinations.

Besides the drug tests, gender screening would have been the natural route at such a prestigious meeting for any female junior athlete whose time exceeded expectations.

According to reports on Media24, the IAAF asked Athletics South Africa (ASA) to conduct a gender-screening test on her. But ASA president Leonard Chuene refuted this allegation and said that she had not undergone further gender tests in Berlin before her race.

"I am here in camp with her and the only tests that she took were the mandatory drugs tests after the heats and semifinals. This is just media speculation," said Chuene.

Sinqe said his daughter had phoned him "two days before the team left for Berlin to tell me that Caster had been taken away for gender-verification tests".

"I checked with her coach and he seemed aware of the developments," he said.

Sinqe said the coach told him this was standard practice in the sport and even Kenyans were subjected to the same tests.

"Caster loves football and I am worried that all this harassment will make her hate athletics and turn our only great athlete to football.

"She is our Usain Bolt and we should emulate the Jamaicans by taking pride in her achievements," he said.

The ANC has also jumped to the defence of Semenya.

"We call on all South Africans to rally behind our golden girl and shrug off negative and unwarranted questions about her gender.

"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.

"Caster is not the only woman athlete with a masculine build and the IAAF should know better," the party said.

Source: Mail & Guardian Online
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SA lashes out at 'racist' world athletics body


South African unions and political organisations have criticised the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) following controversy around athlete Caster Semenya's gender verification test.

Semenya's presence at the World Athletics Championship resulted in a request for a gender verification test by the IAAF. The scrutiny increased after she won the women's 800m on Wednesday.

IAAF general secretary Pierre Weiss said an investigation into Semenya's gender was under way 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.

The African National Congress on Thursday leapt to the defence of Semenya, saying she was the country's "golden girl" and a role model for young athletes.

"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 ANC 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.

"Racism of the highest order"

"This smacks of racism of the highest order. It represents a mentality of conforming feminine outlook within the white race," the Young Communist League said in a statement on Thursday.

"The [Venus and Serena] Williams sisters were never subjected to such public humiliation as is done by the international athletic body. Is it because they are of American descent?" read the statement.

The controversy also 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 (SAFPU) 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 athletics federation must not allow to be used [sic] by countries like Australia to push their racist agenda against South Africa," read the SAFPU statement.

SAFPU has singled out Australia for criticism because it claims the country has been "anti-South Africa" after Fifa awarded the 2010 World Cup to South Africa.

The Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) also criticised the IAAF while praising Semenya.

"Your country is very proud of your historic achievement, all the more remarkable given that you come from a poor rural community in Limpopo with few facilities for sport," said Cosatu in a statement.

"Cosatu rejects with contempt the attempts by those who tried to undermine her success by raising bogus and groundless queries about her gender."

The teenager appeared to be unfazed by the international attention on her gender. Semenya had been scheduled to give a telephone interview to 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". -- Sapa, Reuters

Source: Mail & Guardian Online
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'We know Semenya is a girl'

By Jonah Fisher
BBC News, Masehlong

In Caster Semenya's remote home village of Masehlong in northern South Africa, people have no doubt about the gender of the new 800m world champion.

The first comment came before we had got out of the car.

"Caster's a woman," a middle-aged lady called out with a smile. "We know it here," she continued.

Several thousand people live here - but with the action from Berlin only available on satellite television, the residents have been cramming into a handful of lucky houses to see Ms Semenya run.

"I've no doubt about what I see. It's my girl," local councillor Alphius Makogobe Mpati recounts with a twinkle in his eye.

"We are so proud of her here."

The compound Ms Semenya shares with her parents, brother and five sisters is on the main dirt street.

Her family also produced her birth certificate, which unambiguously classifies her as female.

Success has come quickly for the runner and the three buildings - one a thatched dome - are no different from any of the others in Masehlong, where she was raised.

Electricity has been recently provided but water comes from a communal tap several hundred metres away.

Delicate question

In the street just outside a group of women is discussing the latest edition of the tabloid newspaper The Daily Sun.

It is not sympathetic.

Prove You Are Not A Boy is the headline, alongside a picture of Ms Semenya after she won gold - sitting with her legs apart.

"Go and tell the media that you are liars," one woman said.

"We won't buy your newspapers. We should be proud of her because she is South African but right now they are demolishing her."

Her mother Dorcus Semenya is training to be a care worker.

'No doubt'

So we met up with her 65km (40 miles) away on the outskirts of the regional capital Polokwane.

She is apparently unfazed by the controversy - she smiled and laughed as I tried to delicately get to the bottom of it.

"I've no doubt about what I see. It's my girl," she says.

"She comes from me. I gave birth to that girl, she came from my womb."

The other women at the training centre were more upset.

"The problem is they're jealous because she's South African and a black woman," one said.

Another, a neighbour of the Semenyas, drew a roar of laughter from the centre.

"She played with my girl. I've got no doubts. She wears panties."

Back in Masehlong - a team-mate of hers from the village football team was explaining her value to the (otherwise all-male) side.

"She was our number seven - the striker and she was so quick," said cattle herder Phillip Ponyane Rammabi.

"She'd score two goals every game."

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