Caster Semenya's controversial medal
Friday 28 August 2009
After her stunning gold medal at the 800 metres at the World Athletics Championships in Berlin, the South African athlete Caster Semenya returned home as national icon. However questions about her gender mount overseas.
South African sport officials are planning Caster Semenya’s future in athletics, despite waiting for a final report from the International Association of Athletics Federations which will determine the disputed gender of the 800 metre world champion.
The South African Sports Confederation and Olympic Committee (Sascoc) has said Semenya is a big part of their plans for the 2012 Olympics. The committee’s chairperson, Gideon Sam, has called for calm minds while the IAAF conducts gender verification tests on the new champion.
The IAAF World Athletics Championships in Berlin have made 18-year-old Semenya more than a controversial sports figure: she’s become a national icon in South Africa.
But her homecoming this week was part victory parade, part political fallout. Rumours that Semenya is actually male have angered South Africans sport officials and politicians.
“This is our little girl and nobody’s going to perform any tests on her. We’ve defeated difficult situations in the history of this country. Don’t touch us! Don’t touch us! Because if you dare - we will repeat it again, if those who want to challenge us continue to insult us, using our own people,” said Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, the former wife of Nelson Mandela, defiantly.
Semenya has not spoken publicly about the gender tests that could see her stripped of her gold medal. During a meeting with the athlete, South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma told the media she would keep her medal because she had earned it.
The controversy has ignited a fierce race debate in South Africa. Some believe the 18-year-old’s gender is being questioned because she is African.
Julius Malema, leader of the ANC’s Youth League, claims Semenya is the victim of a “conspiracy by the white-controlled media in South Africa”.
“In African culture, when a child is born, it is reported to the village. The sexual status is declared, that you are given a baby boy or a baby girl. And that has been done. And that is sufficient. So we are not waiting for any test results,” said Malema.
In Semenya’s impoverished home village of Ga-Masehlong, Limpopo, nobody doubts she’s a woman - a superwoman. Her relatives have been showing her birth certificate to visiting journalists - they say the document verifies Semenya is female.
Dorcas Semenya, her mother, believes the gender dispute is motivated by jealousy, saying: “I find it surprising that they now say she is a boy. If she was a boy, why did they allow her to run against girls, and go so far in her career? I gave birth to her. I know she is a girl.”
Semenya is a sports science student at the University of Pretoria. She first came into elite athletic status when she joined the university’s athletics club in January this year. One of the club’s track coaches, Hennie Kriel, believes it was sheer discipline and determination that propelled Semenya to victory in Berlin. He is confident she will break the world record, but worries the media pressure could make her a one-hit-wonder.
“Hopefully everything around her will settle down and she can concentrate on what she needs to do and that’s training, because that makes you a champion. But, the world is at her feet and we’re all hoping the best for her,” smiles Kriel.
Earlier this week, another dream came true for Semenya - she met former South African president Nelson Mandela in Johannesburg as he congratulated her and two other medallists.