JOHANNESBURG (AFP) – South Africa's new 800-metre world champion Caster Semenya was declared a "golden girl" by local press Thursday, with the athlete's family shrugging off questions about the runner's gender.
All major newspapers' front pages pictured a triumphant Semenya who powered to a 1minute 55.45seconds win -- the world's best this year -- shortly after the athletics governing body announced that the runner's gender was to be verified.
"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," father Jacob Semenya told the popular tabloid Sowetan which dubbed the champion "Our Golden Girl".
"For the first time South Africans have someone to be proud of and detractors are already shouting wolf. It is unfair. I wish they would leave my daughter alone."
Semenya's 80-year-old grandmother Maphuthi Sekgala told The Times that the first year sports science student had long been teased about her boyish looks and for being the only girl in her local soccer team.
"(The controversy) doesn't bother me that much because I know she's a woman -- I raised her myself," she said in her rural village in northern Limpopo province.
"She called me after (the heats) and told me that they think she's a man. 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."
Semenya's former high school head told the Afrikaans broadsheet Beeld the top runner had played with boys, enjoyed soccer and wore long trousers to school.
"I first realised that she was a girl in Grade 11," he said, explaining how Semenya had moved to stand with a girls team after he had divided the boys and girls for short running race.
Semenya was a total unknown a few weeks ago -- with Beeld describing her birthplace as remote and rural, with the teenager living with her grandmother while at high school and growing up without electricity or running water.
The runner's coach Michael Seme laughed off the allegations, saying the athlete fielded constant questions about whether she was a boy from younger athletes when training.
"Then she has to explain that she can't help the fact that her voice is so gruff and that she really is a girl. The remarkable thing is that Caster remains completely calm and never loses her dignity when she is questioned about her gender," Seme told the newspaper.
Semenya had been "crudely humiliated" a few times and the closest Seme said he had seen her to anger was earlier this year when some people wanted her barred from using the ladies restroom.
"Then Caster said: 'Do you want me to pull down my pants that you can see. Those same people came to her later and said they were extremely sorry."